Surgery all morning. The last case was quite challenging. Obviously no details – but in overview – a woman came because her son, 13 years old and black, had been stopped by the police and asked to account for what he was doing. He and some friends were described as hiding in the grounds of public building playing hide and seek. Nothing came of it and the police had written to the mother following her complaints to say that they accepted her son’s explanation. End of story. Except – that although there is no police record or criminality etc – the boy’s details will remain on the database as having been stopped and asked to account.
As we went through what had happened, the woman became extremely agitated and before long completely hysterical, sobbing and shouting and weeping and wailing. What was at cause of this was a mixture of indignation that her boy had been stopped at all and that the police shouldn’t be allowed to stop a 13 year old and ask for details (she said they intimidated her son to get them), that the details filled in on the Stop and Search form were inaccurate and that he would be down in police records and this would count against him throughout his life as black boys have the odds stacked against them.
It is one of those situations where I just use enough authority to try and bring calm. I know theoretically people used to say you are meant to slap someone who is hysterical around the face and the shock is supposed to bring them back to their senses. However, I hardly think that a viable or acceptable solution in this day and age! I can just see the headlines. What was the most difficult was that she couldn’t hear anything I was saying. And in fact I thought she had a good point.
It sort of relates to my work on DNA where I am fighting to bring some rationality and fairness to what gets retained by the police when someone is innocent. Likewise, her boy was innocent. She has the letter from the police saying so. But because the police stopped him, his details will remain forever on the database and this may well somehow count against him at a later date and in another context.
So I will pursue this. Because if there is any risk that retained details on an innocent black boy might one day mean that he is prevented from something – a job or a place at university because somehow that information is available – then it should not be retained on record. I will be writing to the police chief to find out what happens to such records, why they keep them and whether there is a particular reason for this boy’s details to be kept. We will see.
There is a whole surveillance society being created at the moment – and we have to be sure that the balance between our civil liberties and catching criminals is not only a fair one – but an agreed one!
From surgery make my way to Highgate Primary School where I am talking to about 30 children from the school council and school newspaper about climate change and recycling – and how lovely it was to be surrounded by enthusiastic youngsters who peppered me with lots of questions and who clearly understood already the need to care about what we use and how we use it and the dangers that faced us.
More fascinating for them – was the fact that this was my old primary school! Neither the head nor the teachers had realised that this was indeed my own Alma Mater! And what memories it sparked. I was describing to Anthony – the teacher in charge of this project – and we didn’t use first names when I was there- that we had had a boys’ playground and a girls’ playground. And he laughed at the idea of gender playgrounds – but that’s how it was. And I remembered all my old teachers’ names. Also, the head was called Mrs Ruby Jobson (I think) and I remember her calling my mother in for a chat because my mother was not a fan of education and thought you should get out into the world and work as soon as possible. She herself had left school at 13 to train under a milliner – which she hated. Anyway – Mrs Johnson called her in and told her that her little girl was quite clever and advised that I sit for a scholarship. My mother reluctantly agreed. But the interesting thing is that we hadn’t done any algebra and apparently you needed to be able to do algebra to sit the exam. So the Headmistress sat me in her own office for six weeks and tutored me personally. I sat the exam. I got the scholarship. And the rest is history. So – an unexpected walk down memory lane!
Then I get a call from a reporter from Radio 4’s Today programme who wants to come and interview me post the fabulous Dunfermline by-election result – as Haringey is one of those councils that is mooted may fall to the Lib Dems. It’s a program to do with what is happening and why in Labour’s heartlands. So he comes to the Three Compasses pub (where my office is upstairs) and I am sitting downstairs having a coffee with my 3 o’clock appointment – Ian Grant – from Open Door.
Open Door is voluntary organisation part funded by state and the rest by raising funds and it has a team of councillors that work with 13 to 24 year olds with mental health problems. One of the projects they are doing, and which they want to promote more widely, is support for parents of teenagers with mental health problems as there is nothing available. The other gap is care for 18 – 21 year olds who often seem to fall between two stools. I am particularly cross about the lack of resource or interest in mental health.
Firstly, neighbour disputes are often mental health based issues and often crime in the community is because care in the community doesn’t work. The police and the prison system end up dealing with what are mental health issues – and of all the under-funding – talking therapies are the lowest in the food chain!! We did actually have an opposition debate this week in Parliament for the first time on mental health for over eight years. And Charles Clarke in his statement yesterday on offenders doing community sentences did mention in passing that the government will be bringing forth legislation in the mental health area. Anyway – the reporter put his tape recorder on and taped a bit of that meeting too.
Then I did the interview – and yes – Labour heartlands will fall (I hope) and he was particularly interested to know how and why I had managed to overturn a Labour lead of 26,000 in two elections. It’s not hard to understand. Haringey Labour ran a one party state where residents were ignored and treated as voting fodder who would vote Labour whatever. Someone like me comes along and says I will listen and care and do things about your everyday life – yes it matters – clean streets, lighting, paving stones and so on. I have always argued that if you can’t keep a street clean how can you run the country? Of course, over the years the Lib Dems have been working in Haringey – we have succeeded in pushing through improvements – on cleaner streets, recycling, school places – all of which Labour ignored until we became a threat, campaigned on these issues and put them in our leaflets. So – there is every chance that we will take the Council in May. Fingers crossed!
As I finish the interview – the CND lobby arrives. I was expecting about 5 of them – but around 12 -15 turn up. We pass an interesting half-hour and each member (virtually) of the lobby presents their case. For the avoidance of confusion – I am against the replacement of Trident with an equivalent system. For the time being, I believe we need a minimum nuclear deterrent. What does that mean? Enough to make anyone think twice about attacking us. I would wish to move to disarmament – but I think that is unrealistic at this moment in time and am not in favour of unilateral disarmament. I want a debate in Parliament on this issue – and indeed a debate in my own party too. I believe the world has changed and is changing and the way war is waged is also changing. The threats of the past are replaced by different threats now. Our defence needs to adapt