Political discourse is being dragged into the gutter

The i, Friday 17 June 2016

The week started horribly with the murder of 49 people in a gay nightclub in Florida. It is ending with the almost unbelievable news that a brilliant young Labour MP, Jo Cox, has been murdered in her constituency in Yorkshire.

There was no warning of the news, which was broadcast live on TV and radio channels and shocked millions of people. Horrific accounts of the attack had already emerged from eyewitnesses, who described how the MP was dragged by the hair, shot three times and stabbed with a foot-long knife. In the hours afterwards, her condition was described as critical, but Acting Chief Constable Dee Collins of West Yorkshire Police said that the MP had been pronounced dead at the scene. A 77-year-old man was treated for injuries sustained in the attack but they are not life-threatening.

The death of Jo Cox is a tragedy of unimaginable proportions for her family, most of all, but also for her friends and supporters in the Labour Party. It was clear yesterday that admiration for her passion and dedication crossed party lines, with Tory, Lib Dem, SNP and Green MPs paying heartfelt tributes. She had been an MP for little more than a year, after previously working as Oxfam’s head of global policy, and her tireless advocacy on behalf of Syrian civilians was widely admired.

Politicians always face some degree of risk. Six years ago Stephen Timms, a Labour MP in east London, was almost killed by an Islamist extremist, Roshonara Choudhry, who stabbed him twice in the abdomen with a kitchen knife. She had been radicalised by watching online sermons by the notorious Islamist imam, Anwar al-Awlaki, and claimed she attacked Timms because he voted in favour of the Iraq war. Choudhry was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to life, with a minimum term of 15 years.

Ten years earlier a Liberal Democrat MP, Nigel Jones, was attacked in his constituency office in Cheltenham by Robert Ashman, who was armed with a sword. Ashman killed Jones’s aide, Andrew Pennington, who bravely tried to restrain him. He was charged with manslaughter and attempted murder, found unfit to stand trial and detained in Broadmoor. He eventually stood trial in 2003, when he admitted manslaughter and was convicted of attempted murder.

It is impossible to protect every single politician all of the time, especially in democracies where meeting strangers is part of the job. In 2011 an Arizona congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords, was shot in the head as she met constituents outside a supermarket in Tucson. Giffords survived with terrible brain injuries, while her assailant went on to kill six other people.

But we have now had two murderous attacks on British MPs in six years, and it has happened at a moment when political discourse has become more personal, bullying and rancorous than anything I can remember. Populist politicians provide a daily diet of sensationalist soundbites, creating an atmosphere of fear, hatred and anxiety. In the US, the presumptive Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, has demonised vulnerable minorities and exploited base human instincts.

In the UK, there is a peculiarly nasty element to this development, which is an apparent normalisation of the most grotesque misogyny. Last month the Labour MP Jess Phillips received 600 abusive tweets in a single evening, including numerous rape threats, after she launched a campaign against online bullying. Female MPs who complain about being threatened with sexual violence are frequently told to “man up”, as though being exposed to strangers’ rape fantasies is just part of the job.

They’re also told that people who spit venom on the internet don’t pose a threat in real life. Yet threats against politicians and other people in public life are now so common that the authors are likely to be a diverse group, ranging from keyboard warriors to individuals who are seriously disturbed.

We do not yet know the motive for the attack on Ms Cox, and I am cautious about claims her assailant shouted “Britain First” during the assault. The chief constable confirmed a man had been arrested but gave no further details about him. She said the attack appeared to be the work of one person and no one else is being sought in connection with the murder.

But it should be blindingly obvious that an atmosphere rank with misanthropy, distrust and the worst kind of populism risks dehumanising decent people, including the vast majority of MPs. The value of human life has seldom been so low, as we can see from an internet awash with decapitation and murder videos; I have worried for some time about the impact of all this not just on people with grievances, real or imagined, but individuals who are mentally ill.

In December last year, a man with a history of mental illness tried to cut the throat of a complete stranger at an east London tube station, claiming he was avenging his Syrian “brothers”. Such attacks are a relatively new phenomenon, and something in our culture is facilitating them.

The ability to disagree in a civilised manner, without demonising opponents, is being lost as political discourse is dragged into the gutter. What is at risk here is not just luminous individuals like Jo Cox, whose murder is nothing short of a national tragedy. It is an attack on democracy itself.

Our dishonourable honours system

The problem isn’t just Philip Green’s knighthood, but how people like him get their baubles in the first place

The Guardian, Tuesday 14 June 2016

Ten years ago this month Philip Green had something to celebrate. The retailer, who used to be as famous for his lavish parties as he is now for his disastrous association with BHS, had just been granted a knighthood in the Queen’s birthday honours. In the years that followed, Sir Philip Green – as he may not be for much longer, if a swelling chorus of MPs get their way – employed thousands of low-paid workers while spending a reputed £6m on a 60th birthday bash for 150 friends in Mexico.

Now he’s facing calls to be stripped of his “K” (as people who know how to work the honours system call it) in the middle of a high-stakes game of chicken with backbench MPs. The flamboyant retailer is threatening to refuse to appear before Wednesday’s joint session of two parliamentary committees inquiring into the failure of BHS – which he used to own – with the loss of 11,000 jobs.

In an extraordinary snub, Green has accused the Labour MP Frank Field, who chairs the joint committee, of trying to destroy his reputation, and “requires” Field to resign from the inquiry. The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has launched a scathing attack on Green, joining a group of critics that is said to include several unnamed but “very angry” Tory backbenchers.

Demands for someone in public life to be stripped of a knighthood are not new. The ex-knights’ club is a motley crew of individuals who have fallen out of favour for one reason or another, the most recent example being Fred “the Shred” Goodwin, former boss of RBS. The overseas branch of the club, consisting of foreigners who have been granted and stripped of honorary knighthoods, includes some real corkers: the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, for instance, and Italy’s fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini.

Robert Mugabe didn’t just have a common-or-garden K; the Zimbabwean tyrant was a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath until 2008, which seems a little late even for the glacially slow British honours system to creak into action. There is one conspicuous absence from the lists of the ex-great and good: Sir James Savile, who was knighted on the personal insistence of Margaret Thatcher and went to his grave with his honour intact.

How the hell, you might ask, did some of these people come to be honoured in the first place? Thatcher is said to have struggled to get her mate Savile through the scrutiny process, which is entirely lacking in anything resembling accountability or transparency. People get gongs for vague things such as “services to retail”, something that appears to translate as “making lots of money”. I’m sure Ant and Dec are nice blokes but I’ve no idea why they got OBEs in the Queen’s birthday honours. Services to Saturday night?

The scrutiny process is supposed to weed out two groups: individuals who might turn out to be an embarrassment to Her Maj, and a smaller bunch of lefties who wouldn’t touch the system with a barge pole. It doesn’t seem to be very good at doing either, bearing in mind that I was once sent a letter asking if I’d like an MBE. I didn’t even need to look at the motto – “For God and the Empire” – to say no thanks.

There is something called an honours forfeiture committee, but John Major confirmed in 1994 that it has no set guidelines for cancellations. Discussions are confidential, and honours are removed only in cases that threaten to bring the system into disrepute, which rather assumes that it isn’t in disrepute already. In the absence of any democratic mechanism, the body that decides who loses their baubles is not so much this secretive committee as the press – which has the capacity to mobilise public opinion against someone like Goodwin or Green.

There is an element of ritual about these occasional hot pursuits and I’m not sure how much of a punishment they involve. If you have sufficient brass neck, and an extremely healthy bank account, losing an honour need not involve any greater inconvenience than having to order a new set of stationery. Green is so famously thin-skinned that becoming plain “Mr” again might well dent his ego, but it amounts to little more than sticking a plaster on the festering wound of the honours system.

It reached its nadir last year when the Queen officially presented her husband with an Australian knighthood, granted in a career-ending move by the then prime minister Tony Abbott, in addition to all his other titles. Arise, Sir Prince Philip? In an ethical universe, or even just a sane one, this tottering edifice would be given the final push it so richly deserves. There’s nothing wrong with governments honouring citizens who have done outstanding things, but a modern democracy doesn’t need the snobbish gradations of MBEs, knighthoods and peerages.

If we stopped giving out so many baubles just for being rich and famous, we wouldn’t need to go to so much trouble to get them back.

Domestic abuse doesn’t just happen to young women – wake up

Daily Telegraph, Tuesday 7 June 2016

Imagine the police arriving at an address where a husband is beating up his wife. What would you expect the couple to look like? A young woman with a couple of crying children and a man struggling to hide his aggression?

That’s true in some cases. But we also need to envisage a very different situation, according to a powerful new film that highlights the plight of older women in violent relationships.

In the two-minute film, made by Ridley Scott’s production company, an older couple played by Tessa Peake-Jones and Phil Davis are enjoying lunch with their daughter and grand-children. It’s a familiar scene, with everyone offering compliments after a beautifully-cooked meal in a welcoming middle-class home.

But something isn’t quite right.

‘You all right, Mum?’ asks the daughter, played by Suffragette star Anne-Marie Duff. Her mother shrugs off the question and it’s only after the family have gone that we see the hidden reality of a violent marriage – Peake-Jones’s character cowering on the stairs as her husband rants and hits her. She has become expert, we realise, in covering the bruises on her face with make-up.

Domestic abuse is being discussed more openly than in the past. We’ve been hearing the same statistic – two women a week are killed by a current of former partner – for decades, but now we are finding out more about the astonishing number of victims whose cases don’t, thankfully, get that far.

An estimated 1.4m women were affected by abuse in 2013-14, according to an analysis of Office for National Statistics crime data. Men suffer too, but the overwhelming majority of victims are female.

Many of those women are young, but that isn’t always the case. Do You See Her is the title of the new film, reminding us that women in their 50s and 60s are abused by husbands and partners - and that some have been suffering silently for years. One in five victims who access services has been experiencing abuse for 10 years, according to charity Women’s Aid. It may be that it’s even harder for women in this age group to talk openly about what’s happening, not least because of misplaced feelings of loyalty to their partners of many years.

Some women, like the grandmother in the film, don’t want to shatter the illusions of their grown-up children. Shame is a factor as well, especially for women who were brought up with traditional ideas about marriage, and older women may also feel that they have fewer options.

None of this amounts to a reason for staying in an abusive marriage, but it does mean we have to think about the kind of services offered to women leaving an abusive relationship.

Here is an even more extraordinary statistic: the oldest recorded victim of domestic abuse in London last year was 97. It may shock some people to realise that even a woman in her tenth decade is not safe, but it’s a reminder that we have very little idea of what happens behind closed doors.

That’s borne out by a new analysis of victims by the Mayor of London’s Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC), which shows that the age range of women affected by abuse in the city in 2015-16 ranged from 16 to the late 90s. Younger women aged 25 to 34 formed the largest single group, representing a third of recorded victims, but just over a fifth were between the ages of 35 and 44.

“Any woman, of any age, can be forced to live in the invisible prison of domestic abuse – including those with adult children and grandchildren”, says Polly Neate, chief executive of Women’s Aid. The point is reinforced at the end of the film in a voice-over by Louiza Patikas, who plays abuse victim Helen in The Archers on BBC Radio 4.

In the series, Helen is currently on remand in a mother-and-baby unit after stabbing her abusive husband Rob as she tried to leave him. Calls to the national domestic abuse helpline rose by 20 per cent in the 12 months up to February this year, something Neate thinks is partly down to the ‘Archers effect’.

One of the things highlighted by the short film is that long-term abuse is often entirely unsuspected – even by close family members. If they are unaware, it’s highly unlikely that the violence has come to the attention of the police, a circumstance borne out by one of the most shocking findings in MOPAC’s analysis of victims in London. There were 28 domestic abuse homicides in the city last year and most of the victims were previously unknown to the police.

Do you see her? Most of us don’t. If we’re going to stop this scourge, we need to get rid of stereotypes and myths, and recognise that domestic abuse affects women of all ages and backgrounds.

Superior Scandi noir

Sunday Times, 5 June 2016

Sweden has produced some of the world’s top crime writers in recent years, offering insights into its fragile political consensus. The country’s response to terrorism and the refugee crisis are at the heart of Hjorth and Rosenfeldt’s stunning new novel, The Man Who Wasn’t There (Century £16.99), translated by Marlaine Delargy.

The authors may be unfamiliar to British readers but they have an impressive pedigree: Hans Rosenfeldt created the hit TV series The Bridge, while Michael Hjorth is a screenwriter and producer. The novel opens dramatically with the discovery of six bodies in a mass grave in a remote area of Sweden. Two of the adults are identified as a Dutch couple who disappeared during a hiking holiday in 2003, but the identity of the other four is a mystery.

The team sent from Stockholm to run the investigation includes a narcissistic psychologist, Sebastian Bergman. He is a brilliant creation, displaying none of the redeeming features we have come to expect from even the most depressed Nordic investigator; his appalling behaviour contrasts with the grief of the other characters, including an Afghan refugee whose husband has disappeared. This is a complex and compelling novel which invites comparisons with Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy.

Cecilia Eckback also writes about mass murder in Sweden but her context could hardly be more different. In The Month of the Midnight Sun (Hodder £16.99) is set in 1856, when three men are found hacked to death in a remote mining village where Christian settlers live uneasily alongside the original Sami people. A mining expert, Magnus Stille, is sent from Stockholm to investigate the murders by the Minister of Justice, who also happens to be his father-in-law.

Magnus’s cover story is that he is carrying out a survey of iron deposits in the area but his inquiries are hampered by the insomnia that quickly begins to torment him in the relentless daylight. Ekback lives in Canada but she was born in Sweden and has a tremendous sense of place, vividly conveying the desolation of the landscape in this haunting novel.

Stephen King strikes an elegiac tone in End of Watch (Hodder £20), the final novel in a trilogy which began with Mr Mercedes. Bill Hodges is a retired cop with serious health problems, but he’s drawn back into an old case involving a mass murderer who deliberately drove a stolen Mercedes into a crowd. The killer, Brady Hartfield, has been unresponsive in a brain injury clinic for years when some of his surviving victims start killing themselves. Hodges believes Hartfield is faking, but the only link between the suicides is an obsolete hand-held computer loaded with a mesmerising game. A serial killer who drives his victims to suicide is a novel idea but King’s use of supernatural powers sits oddly in a crime novel.

Parker Bilal’s superb series of novels set in Mubarak’s Egypt has now reached the period just after the Iraq war. In City of Jackals (Bloomsbury £7.99), the country’s corrupt officials are struggling to contain an influx of refugees from the conflict in Egypt’s southern neighbour, Sudan. It is a bittersweet moment for Bilal’s protagonist, Makana, who fled the Sudanese capital Khartoum years ago and is scraping a living as a private detective in Cairo.

When a severed head is washed up in the Nile, Makana is sure the gruesome find belongs to one of his compatriots. He is supposed to be investigating the disappearance of an Egyptian student but the two cases turn out to have strange connections, leading him to uncover a horrific trade in the city’s most vulnerable people.

Humiliation isn’t the real reason why ex-Cameron aide Patrick Rock walked free from court

Daily Telegraph, Thursday 2 June 2016

In the last few years, we have discovered the grim truth that too many adult men have an unhealthy interest in children. They like looking at picture of girls who are still at school and too young to have sex, and the internet has made it easier than ever to get hold of such images. One of those men, it turns out, is called Patrick Rock, and until he was arrested a couple of years ago he worked for David Cameron.

Rock, who is 65, has now been found guilty of downloading indecent images of girls as young as 10 after a trial at Southwark Crown Court. He was convicted in relation to five images of girls aged between 10 and 14 in sexual poses, after denying child porn offences. They were among 20 images he downloaded onto his iPad over several days in August 2013 – this was no momentary lapse, in other words. Rock was acquitted of three other counts and the jury was discharged after being unable to agree on a further 12, which will lie on file.

The judge, Alistair McCreath, told Rock he was complicit in the sexual exploitation of the girls – and gave him a two-year conditional discharge on each count, to run concurrently. He must also register as a sex offender.

Have I missed something here? Rock was brought into Downing Street five years ago by Cameron, who appointed him deputy director of policy. He had previously been an advisor to the former Home Secretary, Michael Howard, where one of his tasks was working on policy to protect children from sexual abuse on the internet.

Let’s be clear about what this means: a man once trusted by Government ministers to think about how to protect children on the internet – and who is therefore more aware than most of the damage it inflicts – decided to download pictures of under-age girls in bikinis and hot pants. The judge in the case was in no doubt that Rock posed a threat to such young girls, imposing a sexual harm prevention order for two years.

This means that Rock is prohibited from using any device capable of accessing the internet, unless it also has the capacity to retain and display the user history, while any device he uses must also be available for inspection on request by a police officer. That doesn’t suggest McCreath believes Rock can be trusted.

What’s even more extraordinary about this case is that Rock will have to register as sex offender for two years, which hardly suggests his offences are trivial enough to deserve no more than a slap on the wrist. “The punishment for you is the loss of your reputation and your very public humiliation,” the judge told Rock. “It is a punishment which you brought on yourself but it is nonetheless a very real one.”

But is it? Loss of reputation is something many convicted offenders suffer but it is usually regarded as a side-effect, not a punishment in itself. As well as being unduly lenient, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the sentence was influenced by his former public position, and the notion that high-flyers have more to lose. What would have happened to a regular civilian who downloaded sexualised pictures of young girls? Would they have got away with a non-custodial sentence?

What this case is really about is the willingness of adult men to exploit children, regardless of the damage it does. The youngest of the girls in the pictures was aged 10 years and four months when Rock downloaded her picture, which meant she was even younger when it was taken.

Indecent images exist because men like Rock create a demand for them, and the judge’s argument that the girls were not actually naked doesn’t diminish the seriousness of the offences. It is treating under-age girls as sex objects that does the damage, regardless of what they are wearing.

The case raises questions about how seriously some elements of the criminal justice system regard the sexual abuse of children. Child sexual exploitation is a growing problem and even if Rock’s offences were at the lower end of the spectrum, they risk sending a message to other men that such behaviour – ‘just’ looking at under-age girls in sexual poses – is acceptable.

Not so long ago, Rock was entrusted by ministers with the job of trying to put a stop to other men doing exactly what he has now been convicted of. It is hard to imagine a greater breach of trust, either towards the government or the vulnerable children he was supposed to protect. It is simply inexplicable that this man – now a convicted sex offender – won’t spend a single night in prison.


The Goddard inquiry shows we need a public inquiry into rape

Daily Telegraph, Thursday 19 May 2016

At first sight, the figures are jaw-dropping: police in England and Wales are preparing to deal with 30,000 new cases of child sexual abuse. Reports are being passed to the police at a rate of 100 a month by the Goddard inquiry, which was set up after the exposure of Jimmy Savile. One senior officer told the Guardian he predicts that police will be investigating 200,000 cases across the country by 2020.

Some critics will regard these figures with scepticism, pointing to the botched inquiry into allegations of historical sexual abuse against a number of public figures, which has now been wound up. But the mishandling of that investigation does not mean we can ignore a mounting body of evidence that the scale of child sexual abuse is much greater than most people ever suspected.

The figure of 30,000 comes from Simon Bailey, chief constable of Norfolk and head of the national coordinating unit, Operation Hydrant, which is handling reports passed on by the Goddard inquiry. Justice Lowell Goddard is in charge of 13 investigations involving a number of institutions, including the Church, Westminster, the borough of Lambeth and a detention centre in Durham, along with allegations of child sexual exploitation in Rochdale, Devon, Cornwall, Oxford and Rotherham.

Two thousand victims have already contacted the Goddard inquiry and 600 have said they are willing to speak to its ‘truth project’, which was set up hear detailed testimony of childhood abuse. Bailey says he is surprised and shocked by the extent of the abuse being exposed. He’s right – we should never lose our capacity to be shocked by crimes against the most vulnerable individuals in society. But this is not the first indication that the scale of child sexual abuse has been hidden from sight for decades.

In November last year, the children’s commissioner, Anne Longfield, published a report which estimated there were between 400,000 and 450,000 victims of child sexual abuse in England between April 2012 and March 2014. The NSPCC estimates that for every child known to be in need of protection from abuse, another eight are suffering in silence.

This is a very dark picture of childhood and it is not surprising that some people are reluctant to acknowledge it. But two things have come together to tear away the veil of secrecy. Operation Yewtree, the inquiry which uncovered the staggering extent of Savile’s crimes, concluded that he had targeted 450 victims and committed more than 30 rapes.

At the same times, the activities of gangs of men who sexually exploited under-age girls have been exposed in Rotherham, Derby, Rochdale, Oxford and other towns. None of these problems was even on the radar 10 years ago, and a handful of people who told the police they had been assaulted by Savile or tried to expose ‘grooming’ gangs were ignored.

The idea that there is a pool of thousands of victims of child sexual abuse up and down the country is all too plausible, I’m afraid. In London, senior officers are already contemplating the possibility that they may have to handle as many as 15,000 new cases as a direct result of the Goddard inquiry.

But the implications for victims and the criminal justice system are even wider. Child sexual abuse is not the only crime that has been vastly under-reported for decades; senior police officers believe that only one in five rapes is ever reported, and the same is likely to be true of serious sexual assaults. More women are going to the police than ever before, but low conviction rates and lack of confidence in the prosecution process still deter many victims.

They are more likely to contact a rape crisis line to ask for advice and support, and organisations that work with victims see many more women and girls than the police. They have argued for years that most rapists get away with their crimes, creating a pool of women who never see their attackers punished.

In London, almost 16,000 sexual offences were reported to the police last year, along with 5,410 rapes. If those figures represent only a fifth of the total, the true picture is likely to be very different: more like 80,000 sexual assaults and 27,000 rapes. The true number of rape victims in London alone each year is probably around the size of a small town, while a staggering number of perpetrators are walking around, free to commit further offences.

Like the failure over many years to properly investigate child sexual abuse, this is nothing short of a scandal. The Goddard inquiry is finally beginning to make amends to children for years of neglect, but what it is uncovering applies just as much to adult victims of rape and sexual assault. The time for a public inquiry into how those cases are investigated is long overdue.


My mother’s treatment in hospital opened my eyes to a policy of shameful neglect

No one consulted me when my 89-year-old mother was discharged from hospital. The NHS ombudsman’s report shows this is happening all over Britain

The Guardian, Thursday 12 May 2016

The first shock came when I found out my mother was dying. The second was when I discovered that she had been discharged from hospital without my knowledge. My mother was 89, and had dementia, lung cancer and secondary tumours on the brain. I had pleaded with the hospital not to take any decisions without first speaking to me, but they ignored me, as they had done since she was admitted as an emergency six days earlier.

What happened to my mother is far from unusual, I’m sorry to say. Elderly people are being discharged from hospital too soon, according to an excoriating report from Dame Julie Mellor, the parliamentary and health service ombudsman. It describes the experience of nine patients and their families in harrowing detail, including the case of a woman in her 90s who collapsed and died in her granddaughter’s arms after doctors failed to diagnose an infection and sent her home. Dame Julie says these cases represent only a fraction of the total number.

Last year the ombudsman investigated 221 complaints about patients being discharged too early. I am one of the people who complained. The ombudsman upheld several of my complaints against the NHS trust that runs the hospital, listing a series of failures in communication with my family. The report on my mother’s care, which was written jointly with the local government ombudsman, also criticised social services for failing to ensure that proper care plans were drawn up when my mother was admitted to a care home, seven months before her death.

I was relieved when I read the ombudsman’s conclusions, hoping the recommendations might protect other elderly people from the catalogue of errors that affected my mother in the final weeks of her life. A key finding was that hospital records incorrectly recorded that she lived in a nursing home that had the facilities to look after her. She did not, and the staff of the care home were alarmed when she arrived back from hospital without a proper discharge letter. The paramedic who pushed her into the home in a wheelchair – she was too frail to walk – said that in his opinion she should not have been discharged from hospital.

If you have not been through the gruelling process of trying to get proper care for an elderly relative, the errors around my mother’s discharge might not sound significant. But they go to the heart of the problem identified in Dame Julie’s report, which is that hospitals are sending people home without establishing what kind of care and support is available. Sometimes that results in someone who is confused and frightened being left in a flat or house entirely on their own. That is what happened to an 85-year-old woman with dementia who was sent home at 11pm and then discovered by her daughter the following morning with no food, drink or bedding.

In my mother’s case, her complex medical needs meant that her discharge should have been planned by the hospital, social services and the care home, after discussion with the family. None of that happened, even though my mother was at high risk of malnutrition and dehydration. She should have been assessed and referred to a dietitian as soon as she was returned to the care home, but nothing was done for another week. When she was finally weighed, it became apparent that she had lost almost 12kg over the previous six months; she had lost another 5kg by the time she died the following month. I know that from reading the report of her postmortem, a chore I would not wish on my worst enemy.

Coping with an elderly person who has dementia or cancer is difficult and upsetting, but I’m not convinced that the agencies involved are very good at taking the feelings of relatives (or indeed patients) into account. In my case, the situation was complicated by the fact that my mother lived at the other end of the country. She had moved to the north-east to be close to her sisters and brother after my father died, but it made everything immeasurably more difficult when her health began to fail.

I can’t be the only relative who has had to deal with social services and doctors at a distance, but just getting anyone to return a phone call was a gargantuan task. This was a recurring problem but it became more acute when I found out from my aunt that my mother was in hospital in January 2014. I immediately called the hospital to find out what was wrong, and was asked to come to an urgent meeting that afternoon. I explained that was physically impossible – it is a drive of seven hours – and I was assured that a consultant would call me back. When I was given a code word that I would need to repeat to the doctor to establish my identity, I realised that something was seriously wrong. I waited hours for a phone call. Nothing happened. In a state of some agitation, I called the hospital again and managed to track down the consultant.

Even now, it is painful to remember the shock I felt when he told me that my mother had late-stage lung cancer. I tried to gather my wits, asking about palliative care, and he promised that someone would call me before any decisions about moving her were taken.

I never heard from him or the hospital again. It was left to me to make phone calls, find someone who knew about my mother’s case – not always an easy task – and establish how she was. I had no idea she was about to be discharged, and no one told me that a doctor had completed a “do not attempt to resuscitate” form, another failure that was criticised by the ombudsman.

Now that people are living longer, many of us will go through the grim experience of witnessing the decline of a close relative. Until my mother’s health failed, I had a naive belief that we lived in a society where relatives could work collaboratively with professionals to get decent care for the elderly.

Two years ago, my faith in that system was shaken to the core. Now Dame Julie’s report suggests that not much has changed.

Police reaction to revenge porn is playing into predators’ hands

The use of cautions against sexual predators appears to confirm fears that police are unclear how to define revenge porn and when to use harassment legislation

The Guardian, Tuesday 10 May 2016

A few years ago the idea of someone publishing explicit photographs of a former lover, out of spite or as a form of blackmail, was still in the realms of fiction. But advances in technology have created fresh opportunities for sexual predators, and the criminal justice system is finding it difficult to cope with new forms of aggressive and controlling behaviour.

Revenge porn – the sharing of explicit or sexual images without consent – became a specific criminal offence in the UK just over a year ago, and it seems that some police forces are struggling to understand how to use the new law. In the latest example to make headlines, Sussex police have been criticised for merely handing out a caution to a man who targeted four women and a 15-year-old girl. They arrested the 36-year-old last week after receiving complaints, from three of the women and the girl, that images had been posted without their consent on a pornography site.

One of the women said she discovered two pictures of herself on the porn site along with the comment: “Do your absolute worst guys and abuse her as much as you like, all I ask it that you show me it all.” In the case of the 15-year-old girl, explicit sexual images were superimposed on to pictures taken from her Facebook account. Given that the photographs were doctored, and not taken during a relationship, it is more akin to harassment than what we normally understand as revenge porn.

The use of cautions in cases involving sexual and domestic abuse is controversial. Women have complained for decades that reports of rape and sexual assault are not taken seriously and that few cases come to court. There were 1,160 reports of revenge porn between April and December last year, involving 31 police forces in England and Wales. Three of the victims were 11 years old. So far few of these complaints – only 11% – have resulted in charges. In 40% no action was taken, with lack of evidence or the victims withdrawing support given as the reason. The Sussex case appears to confirm anxieties that some police forces are unclear about the definition of revenge porn and reluctant to use other, more appropriate laws.

In this particular case, although the suspect admitted committing offences over a period of five months, he was merely cautioned for one offence of revenge porn and three of sending an offensive, indecent, obscene or menacing message. Sussex police are currently reviewing a complaint by a fifth woman whose allegations against the same man were recorded as not a crime. The use of cautions in a case involving so many victims, and a range of offences as serious as incitement to violence and harassment, is troubling, especially if there’s a risk of someone committing further offences.

Alison Saunders, the director of public prosecutions, has tried to make sure that the revenge porn law is used appropriately, telling police and prosecutors that a charge of harassment should be considered when there is more than one incident, or a pattern of behaviour. She has also said that if a victim is under 18, a charge under the Protection of Children Act 1978 should be considered. In effect Saunders is reminding the police that the revenge porn law is just one way to approach a range of unfamiliar behaviours that cause great distress to victims, some well under the age of consent.

That is not to say we shouldn’t be concerned about revenge porn. Senior police officers have told me they are worried about teenage boys using explicit pictures to control sexual partners, threatening to post them online when girls try to leave abusive relationships. They believe schools need to warn young people about the risks involved, not for reasons of prudery but so they know how to stay safe.

There has seldom been a moment in history when the criminal justice system has faced so many new challenges. It is constantly playing catch-up with technology, trying to ensure that perpetrators are called to account without criminalising the behaviour of consenting adults. It is not an easy moment for the police, but they have a wider range of sanctions than ever before and should not be reluctant to use them.

Murder on the colonial front line

Sunday Times, 8 May 2016

Calcutta in 1919 is a city of extremes of wealth and poverty, and colonial rule is threatened by a growing nationalist movement. When a senior civil servant is found dead in a gutter, with a message warning the British to leave India stuffed in his mouth, the authorities assume it is a political assassination. But the detective assigned to the case in Abir Mukherjee’s terrific first novel, A Rising Man (Harvill Secker £12.99), listens to local people and thinks that the motive is more likely to be personal.

Captain Sam Wyndham used to work for Scotland Yard and is a disillusioned veteran of the First World War. He survived the conflict more or less unscathed, only to discover that his wife had died in a flu epidemic, and he has come to India in search of a new life. Mukherjee’s descriptions of Calcutta under the Raj are vivid and evocative, while Wyndham’s position as a newcomer with fresh eyes works brilliantly. The plot moves at breakneck pace but Mukherjee’s real subject is the underlying corruption of a society divided by class and race.

Melanie Raabe is a journalist based in Cologne and another first-time novelist. The Trap (Mantle £12.99), translated by Imogen Taylor, is a twisty revenge drama in which a reclusive author writes a crime novel to trap a man she believes guilty of murder. Twelve years ago, Linda Conrads walked into a flat to find her sister stabbed to death and the killer making his escape. Her health collapsed and she withdrew into self-imposed isolation, relying on her publisher and a couple of trusted staff to manage her contact with the outside world.

Linda has not left her house for 11 years when she spots the killer on a TV programme. He is now a successful journalist and she’s certain no one will believe her, so she comes up with a hare-brained plan to base her next book on the murder and offer him an exclusive interview at her home. What happens next is a chilling battle of wits in which Linda tests the limits of crime fiction and risks her own life in the process.

Mark Billingham’s new novel, Die of Shame (Little, Brown £18.99), presents his detectives with an unusual and frustrating case. A group of recovering addicts has been meeting weekly at the north London home of an unconventional therapist, Tony De Silva, who encourages them to socialise outside the group. There are explosive conflicts between some of the members, especially when a morbidly obese woman joins the circle and disrupts its dynamics. When a young woman is murdered, it is clear that one of the group is responsible.

De Silva refuses to cooperate with the police, citing professional confidentiality, and the surviving members take their cue from him. This is an intriguing set-up, involving a cast of suspects where everyone has something to hide, and Billingham shares suspicion around pretty even-handedly. But it is hard to sympathise with characters who are so self-obsessed, and the ending feels artificial.

Elizabeth Brundage’s haunting novel All Things Cease To Appear (Quercus £16.99) unfolds at a leisurely pace, despite a gruesome opening. The novel begins in upstate New York in the 1980s, when an art history professor arrives home to find his wife has been savagely murdered at their isolated farmhouse. George Clare’s immediate concern is the couple’s daughter, who is the only witness but too young to understand what she may have seen. The case remains unsolved for decades, allowing Brundage to expose the unravelling of the mind of the killer in slow and forensic detail.



The Queen and a reign of abject failure

Institutions have changed to reflect the modern world, but not the monarchy. And she is to blame

The Guardian, Wednesday 20 April 2016

The Queen is scheduled to take a short walk from Windsor Castle tomorrow, meeting the public and unveiling a plaque as she celebrates her 90th birthday. Such events are carefully orchestrated, evoking the history of the institution she represents, so it is unfortunate that her stroll will begin at the Henry VIII gate, named after a notorious uxoricide and probable psychopath.

Elizabeth II is not a direct descendant of her monstrous predecessor and the modern monarchy is very different from its Tudor counterpart. After more than six decades on the throne, the Queen has come to occupy a special role in the national psyche, if such a thing exists. She has come to represent continuity at a moment when the world seems more dangerous than ever.

These days she is a grandmotherly figure, and it is regarded as churlish to ask questions about how she has conducted herself as head of state. I am a republican, and I don’t believe in the monarchy but if you strip away the stardust, as royalists like to call it, it is hard to see her reign as a resounding success even on its own terms. Her personal popularity has fluctuated wildly: in the autumn of 1997, after the death of Princess Diana, the Daily Mail published a memorable front page, demanding: Time for the Queen to go? At that low point, an opinion poll suggested that “seven in 10 Britons” wanted her to consider abdicating.

The monarchy’s foundations are less secure than is often assumed, which is why royalists should be worried that the Queen will leave behind an institution as unreformed as it is undemocratic. There is a chasm between the UK’s constitutional arrangements and its commitment to equality: viewed from abroad, the royals are a strange bunch of people with little connection to the diverse country the family is supposed to represent on the world stage. Its inextricable connection to the archaic principle of primogeniture means that the next three heads of state will be stolidly monocultural: white, male and Anglican.

More to the point, the royal family has entrenched its position in a way that flies in the face of the dramatic changes other elements of the establishment have had to cope with in recent years. As elected politicians learn to exist in a much more open and critical society – the prime minister, chancellor and leader of the opposition have just published details of their tax affairs – the Queen and her immediate relatives are less open than ever to democratic scrutiny.

Senior royals now enjoy total exemption from the Freedom of Information Act. Press releases crowing about how little the monarchy costs leave out the huge cost of security, even though taxpayers fund it. The office of an elected head of state would be cheaper to run – it is preposterous that there are something like 18 “working” royals on the public payroll. But that isn’t even the most significant objection to the monarchy’s opaque finances. The royals’ habitual secrecy makes a mockery of the accountability we expect of people who receive public money.

Their exemption from freedom of information requests came about because they had a moment of staring into the abyss, caused by the Guardian’s attempt to see some of the “black spider” memos from the Prince of Wales to politicians. The fact that he privately bombarded ministers with wheedling letters, contrary to his constitutional position, was an open secret but the government fought to keep the details under wraps. Understandably, because the man they eventually revealed is a nightmare: credulous, reactionary and gripped by the illusion that he is a radical thinker. In 2004 he wrote to the then education secretary, fishing for public funds for one of his pet projects that would challenge “fashionable” ideas about education. “Perhaps I am now too dangerous to associate with!” he boasted.

Dangerous, yes, but not in the way he intended. From a variety of sources, we know that Prince Charles has character flaws that imperil the future of the entire operation. For the second time in less than a century, the throne is about to pass to someone entirely unsuited to it. If you are a monarchist, this is surely one of the Queen’s greatest failures: she was in charge of the prince’s education and upbringing, yet she has been singularly ineffectual as a brake on his excesses.

What makes this so astonishing is that the Queen has more reason than anyone to be aware of the historical precedent. She was nine in 1936 when her uncle David, another manifestly unsuitable Prince of Wales, succeeded his father George V and lasted less than a year as Edward VIII. That near-disaster for the monarchy has always cheered republicans, and the parallels between then and now are striking.

Edward was in his early 40s when he inherited the throne but Charles is approaching 70 and likely to be a king in a hurry. He has let it be known that he does not intend to stop making what he calls “heartfelt interventions” – otherwise known as unconstitutional political interference – in national life.

For republicans, the prospect of this foolish, not-very-bright man ascending the throne is a dream come true. The present Queen’s legacy may look very different once the future of the monarchy is in the inept hands of her eldest son.