Mental Health and #PublicSectorPay

For the past few months I’ve been producing some mental health programmes for a national broadcaster. It’s been an enlightening experience but also at times pretty dark. It’s clear that mental illnesses have a debilitating and destructive impact on people who experience them, as well as their friends and families. I’ve spoken with people experiencing crippling eating disorders trying desperately to take control of their lives back, men with depression fighting the darkness with every cell in their body, young people desperate to overcome the urge to self-harm, and women who tragically experienced terrifying episodes of psychosis in those fragile hours and days after giving birth.

But there have also been many stories of hope – people finding their voice, feeling liberated and inspired, and gaining the strength to talk openly about their illness and help others facing the same struggles. It seems that winning the fight against mental illness is such an incredibly empowering thing that enables people to talk about what they’ve been through.

And this is why today, talking about mental illness openly is encouraged. It’s because talking is good and stigma is bad. And I hope it is making a difference, I hope that people with mental health problems do feel able to talk about them openly – to their friends, family, mental health charities, their GP – whoever they need to open up to.

But those empowered to seek professional help through the NHS may not get the help they need, or certainly not as soon as they need it. And it all comes down to public sector cuts.

In 2014 the Government set out its ambition for parity of esteem between mental and physical health care for all. But the stories I’m hearing are that people are increasingly being admitted to hospitals hundreds of miles away from their families, mental health crisis teams do not have the resources to do their jobs properly and women who have post natal mental illnesses are going undiagnosed and untreated. The NHS is in crisis and mental health trusts are still having to find huge efficiency savings despite Government pledges to spend more. As one clinical manager put it, there is “no more fat on the bone”.

Today’s Government vote to keep the cap on public sector pay will do nothing to motivate nurses, psychiatrists, social workers and other practitioners who are already doing crucial yet both physically and mentally demanding jobs.

Samaritans: 116 123 (free to call from within the UK and Ireland), available 24 hours a day to provide confidential emotional support for people who are experiencing feelings of distress, despair or suicidal thoughts.
Mind InfoLine: 0300 123 3393 or e-mail Open Monday to Friday 9am to 6pm (except bank holidays).


Going eco in the nappy department is a small sacrifice.. but it’s worth it

My daughter just turned one. I know this is probably quite common but when I had her I became irrationally frightened of routine things. The fear ranged from the mundane to the absurd – there were the everyday perils like crossing the road combined with the outlandish fear that a sinkhole might open up and swallow our house. I’m still a little bit scared of these things but thankfully I’ve learnt to lock ‘the fear’ away deep in my subconscious and ignore it in order to function like a normal human.

I think an extension of this fear in the early days of motherhood was my heightened sense of responsibility towards the environment that my daughter’s generation will one day inherit, and the sense of impending doom I get every time I see a mum driving one tiny baby around in a massive gas guzzling four by four. So inspired by a good friend, and in an attempt to do my bit, I ditched the disposables and started using eco-friendly re-useable nappies.

And what a total pain that turned out to be. I threw myself into the world of re-useable nappying without doing any proper research. My first mistake: I failed to buy a nappy bin. I had absolutely no idea what to do with Charlotte’s first poo explosion so I put the soiled nappy in a bowl of water and left it in the kitchen. When I went back to it a couple of hours later I had not only a dirty nappy to deal with but also a putrid bowl of watery excrement and a house that smelt like a sewer. Do I pour it down the sink? The bath? The drain? I learnt an important lesson that day: never soak a dirty nappy. These days, in the world of cloth nappying, it’s all about “dry pailing” ie putting dirty nappies in a nappy bin with a lid which locks in the smell.

Six months and a lot of poo scraping later and I’m a big fan of the rimg_1597e-useable nappy. After all it’s what we wore when we were babies, and every generation before us. Except now we have washing machines, and cloth nappies are expertly designed. a modern day re-useable nappy is genuinely a feat of engineering. They really are very brilliant. But they still aren’t a patch on the disposable.

Ah the disposable nappy. Your baby does the mother of all poos and you just chuck the nappy away. It’s out of your life forever. And those genius little chemical beads that turn wee into gel. You can leave a baby in a disposable for 12 hours at night and they’ll absorb every drop of wee. The cloth nappy will never be able to compete with that.

But it’s no secret that disposable nappies are pretty awful for the environment. Because they contain plastics they take hundreds of years to decompose and the sheer volume of nappies going to landfill is unimaginable.

Cloth nappies definitely are a bit harder work and less absorbent than disposables, there’s no denying that. So yes, it is a sacrifice. I wouldn’t judge anyone for using disposables, I still use them at night and on holiday. (I have also been known to buy a plastic bottle of water and then bin it. I’ve even on occasion drank coffee out of a non-recyclable paper coffee cup. We’re all only human after all.) I do feel though that there’s a lack of will from many of us to even engage with the idea of using cloth nappies: they are presumed to be just too much like hard work.

But there are things you can do to reduce your baby’s impact on the environment without committing yourself 100% to being a cloth nappy mum and it needn’t be a huge sacrifice. Just using one or two reusables a day would help, you don’t have to commit to switching completely. The Nappy Lady: can help with which type to buy, and there are many Facebook groups for trading second hand ones. You can get biodegradable nappies, Sainsbury’s sell the Naty ones, although they are twice the price of Pampers. And there are companies that recycle your used nappies:  Some mums don’t use nappies at all:  and although this may sound like a bridge too far for most mums, I think there maybe something in it. The best way for reducing the impact of disposable nappy waste would be to reduce the time children spend in nappies. Can you imagine how much less waste there would be if we all potty trained our babies aged one instead of two?

Ultimately as parents we have a responsibility to protect the world that our children will inherit, whether that means thinking about what kind of nappies we use, driving environmentally friendlier cars or just ditching paper coffee cups. But the government could go further to help us do the right thing. Incentive schemes for reusables or tax on disposables would be hugely unpopular but effective, just look what happened after the plastic bag tax was introduced. And local authorities would benefit hugely from a reduction in landfill waste – nappy disposal costs them billions.

I think the main problem with cloth nappies for most parents though is the perception of the hard work that’s involved and the fact that we have to get our hands dirty. What a shame we view our own baby’s bodily waste with such distaste. It’s no holiday dealing with baby poo but it’s a fact of life that previous generations took for granted and we refuse to accept.

Brexit and our grandparent’s legacy


I can’t help thinking that the principles for which my grandads bravely fought and my grandmas gallantly endured during WWII are disappearing. Peace, stability and unity, the values underpinning the European Union, are at risk since that devastating result on June 23rd and in their absence grows hatred and intolerance, as incidents of hate-crime rise post-referendum.

My grandads were lucky – they came back from a war that many didn’t. And with them came stories with the hardship and horror edited out for the ears of my impressionable young self. My maternal granddad had spent time in an Italian prisoner of war camp. With great humour and pride he told me about his captors who taught him ‘expletive Italian’, how they turned a blind eye during my granddad’s many escape attempts. Even in the POW camps of WWII, mutual understanding and friendships existed between men who were formally enemies.

The great legacy of our grandparent’s sacrifice is the EU, born from the ashes of war to ensure a peaceful, united and prosperous future for Europe. Never would we allow the horrors of war to be repeated; war would be “unthinkable and materially impossible” in the new union as neighbouring countries became economically and politically linked to secure lasting peace.

On May 9th 1950, the Schuman Declaration served as a proposal for France and Germany to merge their production of coal and steel – a fusion of interests aimed to establish a common economic system which would raise living standards and promote peace. This was the birth of a peaceful and prosperous Europe, a community between countries that had previously opposed each other in bloody divisions. In 1973 the UK signed up to what would become the European Community and the Maastricht treaty formally established the union on November 1st 1993.

So what now? We are witnessing the end of European unity as Britain heads – albeit sluggishly – into the unknown. We have no idea when or how we’ll be disentangled from European law, and how we will replace legislation which underpinned the Union’s values for decades. How will our Government legislate for human rights, worker’s rights, climate change? But the question which haunts me the most as we plunge into the unknown is this: what would my grandparents think?

Transforming Rehabilitation – Why You Should Care

Last week, a man called John came to my door, selling a range of overpriced cleaning products. He was trying to offload dusters, cloths, tea towels – the kind of thing you’d get for pennies in the supermarket – for more than three times the price.

He explained to me that he was on probation. He’d been in prison in the north east and was out on licence, having been re-located to a new area – common practise to allow reformed prisoners a real fresh start and protect victims from bumping into their perpetrators in their home town. I knew that in order to be eligible for probation he must have served more than 12 months so there was a good chance his offence was much more than a petty crime, and could have involved violence of some sort.

I asked him how much sympathy he’d received, knocking on doors in the middle class area that I live in. He said he’d had a few doors slammed in his face and some people had been mean. But his spirits remained high and he soldiered on, determined to “make a positive change in his life”, as he put it. I told him maybe he should lower his prices.

I bought an ironing board cover that I didn’t need for £13.00 and sent him on his way.

Last year, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling announced fundamental changes to the probation service of England and Wales, changes which amount to privatising half of it. One of the reasons given for the changes is to allow the probation service to extend to the most prolific re-offenders who currently don’t qualify for probation: those serving sentences under 12 months – without increased cost to the taxpayer. In my experience there is little argument from probation staff that re-offending rates by this group – called the under 12 month cohort – needed to be addressed.

But what probation staff are upset about is that the changes Grayling proposes will not only not address the problem of the under 12 month cohort re-offending rates, but that they will undermine and destroy the good work that is currently being achieved in the rest of the service – the work that is done to stop people like John re-offending and ending up back in prison.

When offenders are released from prison they are given a risk rating – high, medium or low. Previously all offenders, whatever their risk rating, were supervised by the same organisation: a local probation trust. Their risk rating would be monitored and their probation officer could escalate or de-escalate their rating as required.

Now the probation service is split into two: a national probation service which supervises the medium to high risk offenders, and 21 regional Community Rehabilitation Centres which are responsible for low risk offenders. It’s the 21 CRCs which are being sold off to private bidders under Grayling’s plans.

And this is where the most fundamental problem with the changes lies.

Risk – as any probation worker will tell you – is volatile. It can change daily, hourly even, and with devastating circumstances. When the risk rating of an ex-offender changes from medium to high, lives are in danger. This is why, when risk changes, action must be taken immediately. But under the new regime, immediate action in these circumstances has been made impossible, because it means passing the case files and responsibility for that offender from one organisation to a completely separate one. And I’m sure you can imagine the bureaucracy involved in that.

One of the most unpredictable and volatile group of offenders, and the group most likely to be failed by the new system according to probation officers I’ve spoken to, are domestic violence offenders. Single and living alone, these offenders can pose no risk to the public. But this can change in a day, even in the space of an hour. For example the minute someone with previous for DV enters into a relationship, or comes into regular contact with a partner or child, or maybe has experienced a drug or alcohol relapse, that partner or child is immediately at risk of serious harm. Probation workers say that inability to access client records – as a direct result of the changes brought in last year – mean that they are missing details which could save lives.

In one case I looked into, a man with previous convictions was supposed to be receiving home visits from his probation officer – they never happened. And because of staff shortages he was assigned to a junior member of staff who had insufficient experience. During this time, the man killed his girlfriend and then he killed himself. There’s no way of knowing for sure if this crime could have been prevented if the changes had not been implemented, but probation workers seem to think it could have.

I’ve heard endless stories of probation teams being overworked, understaffed and under-resourced. But this is more than public sector staff complaining about working conditions. The service is broken and a broken probation service means people will die.

One worker told me about a high risk offender who wasn’t seen for nine months because he “slipped through the net” – ie his files weren’t passed on.

Another person told me:  “I have concerns that we have no idea if we are seeing everyone that we are supposed to be seeing. I suspect that people are being sentenced but that we are not receiving them. All offenders should receive details of their first appointment before they leave court. In one CRC, over 4 weeks, 57 out of 72 didn’t have a first appointment scheduled. They’re just the ones we know about. They disappear.”

And as for John – his chances of a fresh start depend so heavily on his relationship with his probation officer. He told me he liked his officer, he felt that he got a good service from him, but he was aware that there were changes happening and that staff were unhappy. I have no idea what risk John individually poses to the public. But probation staff feel collectively that with the service in its current state, the chance of something going badly wrong is a notch higher than it was before. One staff member told me she thinks we’re heading for a crisis on the scale of the Stafford Hospital scandal. Grayling is pushing ahead with his changes, so all we can do is wait and see.

Where there’s economic recovery, there’s personal debt

Personal debt in the UK remains close to its all-time high at £1.4 trillion. But don’t let the green shoots of economic recovery let you think that the problem is about to go away. The inevitable rise in interest rates could lead to a personal debt time-bomb for Britain’s poorest. 

The personal debt crisis is set to worsen as interest rates inevitably rise

The personal debt crisis is set to worsen as interest rates inevitably rise

With 8.8 million people* living with serious debt in Britain today, we are deep in the midst of a personal debt crisis, the roots of which can be traced back to the 1980s. Credit became more readily available and our culture of saving started to dwindle. We no longer had to save up for things we wanted or needed – houses, cars, clothes, even food, could all be bought on credit. But recent increases in the cost of living and stagnant wages has forces many low and middle income families to use credit for essentials and prevented them from being able to save. According to the Centre for Social Justice, a staggering 3.9 million British families do not have enough savings to cover their rent or mortgage for more than a month. With no savings they have no resilience when faced with an unexpected bill or loss of earnings. For many without access to mainstream banking there is only one way to deal with these “financial shocks”: high interest, short term loans. The debt spiral begins.

Today’s Times (misleadingly) reports that the Great Recession is officially over. So why are more of us in debt, and why are those levels of debt increasing?

I recently discovered, thanks to campaign group Positive Money that 97% of money created today is created by banks making loans. Your mortgage, for example, was created by someone literally typing the numbers into a computer. Money created in this way is already someone’s debt as soon as it comes into existence. It’s true, really, the Bank of England says so:

Now I’m no expert, far from it. But this must mean that in order for there to be more money in the economy, there has to be more debt. The way Positive Money puts it, for every £1 in your bank account, someone else must be £1 in debt.

It sounds terrifying, but is this necessarily a bad thing? As I said, I’m no economist. But it seems clear to me that a society where economic success is reliant on people being in debt cannot be equal. And like many things in life, debt disproportionately burdens the poor. According to the Centre for Social Justice, indebted households in the poorest 10 per cent of the country have average debts of more than four times their annual income, whereas high earners generally have debts roughly equal to their annual income. And average debt repayments among poorer families amount to nearly half their monthly income.Low income families are the ones who will struggle most to get out of debt, some will never be free of their debts.

Yesterday I spoke to John (not his real name) who, at the age of 75, has £35000 of debt which he is paying off at the rate of £50 per month. He’ll be 134 years old by the time he’s debt-free. John is just one of a growing number of people who after a life of poverty will die in debt.

The current system of money creation by the banks makes rich people richer and poor people poorer. It must be fixed.


*The Money Advice Service