Monday, 23 December 2013

The WOW factor makes for a good early Christmas present, but we must keep up the fight against the erosion of the welfare state

A year and a half ago I wrote about John Burns, a courageous man who, having suffered a terrible water sports accident, had been paralysed from the neck down. I was privileged to hear Mr Burns speak of his experience of spinal cord injury (SCI) at the AGM of the All Party Parliamentary Group on SCI in June, 2012.

The august surroundings (the AGM was held at Portcullis House in the House of Lords) only made Mr Burns' tale all the more poignant. After his accident, Mr Burns was forced, through lack of any alternative, to live in institutional care. Deprived of his family life, missing anniversary celebrations and seeing his sons grow up, he regarded this as a prison sentence.

We must oppose the war on welfare

Listening to Mr Burns was moving and inspirational in equal measure. On the one hand, everyone present admired his courage; on the other, we couldn't help but feel angry at the treatment of those with disability in this country. Time and again those who suffer an SCI are packed off into homes and forced either to use their savings or sell family assets to pay for their treatment. They're forced to live alone, away from their families and friends - despite having worked hard and paid their taxes, and despite Britain's longstanding and much admired commitment to welfare.

In fact, the present government has been engaged in a war on welfare for some time. If it had its way, the sick and those with disability would be even worse off, thanks to cuts proposed by the Department for Work and Pensions. Our cherished welfare state is under threat as never before.

But the year could be ending on a positive note - thanks to the WOW factor.
#WOWdebate2014 to stop the War on Welfare

WOW stands for the War on Welfare campaign. Its campaigners ask the government to carry out a Cumulative Impact Assessment to look at the overall effect of cuts to sick and disabled people, as well and their families and carers. They also ask that MPs are given a free vote on the repeal of the Welfare Reform Act. Other laudable campaign aims are to end the Work Capability Assessment, and the launch of an independent inquiry into issues including charges for care homes, ATOS, and the closure of Remploy factories.

Success for WOW

WOW launched an e-petition, supported and submitted by actress and award-winning comedian Francesca Martinez. In a piece of great news just before Christmas, the petition secured its target of 100,000 signatures with 12 days to spare before it closed. Celebrities including Stephen Fry, Russell Brand and Yoko Ono lent their support and helped garner the momentum for enough signatures to compel a parliamentary debate.

For Francesca Martinez, the key issue is clear cut. As she puts it: "The Government are using this recession as a cover for implementing cuts and eroding vital services that people fought long and hard for, and we need to get together and protect these crucial support networks."

I agree whole-heartedly. The government's hostility to the sick and disabled is a disgrace. Moreover, it's a human rights issue. We should all continue to support WOW - for example by writing to our local MPs. We must do our best to preserve what's good about our society - not stand by and let it be taken away.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

We need better education and treatment in sport for concussion – and we need it now

For many years I enjoyed playing amateur football. I was never going to be good enough to emulate my heroes, the likes of Peter Osgood or Alan Hudson, but like so many enthusiastic players up and down the country I loved the game. And, again like so many grass roots players, I look back on a few moments from my playing days and shudder.

My retrospective misgivings aren't from memories of open goals missed (or own goals scored). These things happen; if anything, at amateur level they're to be laughed about in the pub afterwards.

No, my misgivings flow from remembering the times when a player suffered a head injury, usually from a clash of heads as two players competed to head the ball. One player would take a severe knock (sometimes both of them, in fact). He'd be on the turf for what seemed an age, only to stagger to his feet and insist that he was well enough to play on. This was almost always what happened. Only rarely did a player on the receiving end of a head injury leave the field of play. Time and again he'd wear his palpable concussion like a badge of honour, and keep going to the end of the game.

Concussion can be fatal

I look back on these incidents and shudder because I realise that collective ignorance – or, perhaps, machismo - had the effect of putting a sportsman's life at risk.

The fact is that concussion can be fatal. It can kill soon after the first signs manifest themselves, or it can kill later in life when the consequence of repeated trauma to the head turns into CTE - chronic traumatic encephalopathy. CTE was formerly known as dementia pugilistica - 'the boxer's disease' - but increasingly studies are revealing that is present in sportspeople from other sports, including American football and ice hockey.

And, as Andy Bull's excellent article in last Sunday's Observer reveals, rugby.  In modern rugby, the dangers of concussion have grown exponentially as the game has evolved, as Bull elegantly puts it, "from a contact sport to a collision sport." Concussion was always a danger in rugby (as it was in football) but today's players are better conditioned than those of yesteryear. Players are bigger, faster, stronger – and they hit a lot harder than they used to. Tackles are now "hits", and YouTube is full of  "greatest hits" from both rugby union and league. But to view, say, this collection of "hits" is not simply an exercise in admiring the bravery of the contemporary player. It is also to come away wholly endorsing the argument in Bull's article: that a sea-change is required in rugby so that players' lives and health are not unnecessarily risked by the modern game's relentless ferocity.

Bull has also written of the tragic story of 14-year-old Ben Robinson, who, on 29 January 2011, was treated on three occasions for blows to the head while playing rugby – and on each occasion sent back onto the pitch to play on. Ben later collapsed and died in hospital in a case of Second Impact Syndrome (SIS). SIS means that the brain swells swiftly and catastrophically after a person suffers a second concussion before symptoms from an earlier one have subsided. SIS is nearly always fatal; if it isn't, it leads to permanent serious disability.

Change has to come from the top

Arguably, today's rugby culture killed poor Ben Robinson, the culture of hitting hard and playing on. SIS certainly killed him. SIS could have caused terrible problems for Hugo Lloris, the Spurs goalkeeper allowed to play on against Everton in a November fixture, and it will continue to cause terrible problems for any number of sportspeople until we succeed in implementing a root and branch change to the way that we regard head injuries in sport.

Head injuries aren't a 'laugh'. It's not amusing to see a player wobble unsteadily, then regain his senses, then play on. It's not a tribute to his fortitude. It's foolhardy. The risks are too great, and, as Dr James Robson, the Scottish rugby union side's chief medical officer, says (in Bull's Observer piece): "When you get a subject as important as this [change] has to come from the top. To me that means the government. They are responsible for the nation's health and that is what we are talking about, the health of the nation's young people." 

Dr Robson is right. So come on, Mr Cameron, what have you got to say? If you could tear yourself away from taking selfies (and worrying about what happens to them) and tweeting about Nigella, perhaps you could endorse the calls for thorough education and treatment in sport for concussion. Those calls, to anyone with any sense, are irresistible. 

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Mesothelioma: when a U-turn is a good turn

The term 'U-turn' has negative connotations in politics. It signifies a complete change in direction, an abrogation of policy so pronounced that Margaret Thatcher famously made capital out of its opposite. "The lady's not for turning," said Lady Thatcher, and ever since politicians from a variety of parties have seen this statement not as indicative of blind stubbornness but as a sign of strength.

But the received wisdom isn't always right. A U-turn can be a good turn. It can indicate due regard for the implications of policy and the acknowledgement that it hasn't been properly thought through. Which - thankfully - is exactly what's happened this week, with the government executing a U-turn when it comes to mesothelioma claims.

To recap, mesothelioma is a disease caused by exposure to asbestos, with a long delay between exposure and developing the disease (often 40 to 50 years). It is nearly always fatal, and some 2,200 people die of it each year in England and Wales. Over the years sufferers have faced a massive battle to obtain compensation, owing either to the difficulty of tracing employers or, indeed, insurers. Another statistic puts this is perspective: 50% of claims for compensation for mesothelioma take over 12 months to settle, which means that sufferers may die before their claims are paid out.

Delay equals injustice

For many years campaigners, notably the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers (APIL), have called for the government to establish a fund to make sure those left unable to claim can do so. The idea was that contributions from insurers would initiate and sustain the fund which would pay out in circumstances where the employer's insurer could not be traced.

In parallel insurers came up with the Mesothelioma Pre Action Protocol (MPAP) to replace the existing pre-action protocol for disease and illness (DPAP), which they sought to link with the introduction of the untraced insurers fund. The protocol seemed to the government like a good idea at first blush, a way of dedicating resources to mesothelioma sufferers. The government initially gave its endorsement. But the devil was in the detail. And the more people looked at the detail, the more it seemed that sufferers would receive less money - and have to wait longer for it. The insurers sought to stick to a position which linked the introduction of the fund with the introduction of the protocol.

MPAP: a hindrance not a help

Shailesh Vara Photo
Courts Minister Shailesh Vara

APIL played a large role in harnessing industry response to the proposed MPAP. It became abundantly clear that mesothelioma sufferers, far from being helped by the MPAP, would be hindered by it. And this week, Courts Minister Shailesh Vara showed that the government is capable of listening, announcing that the government would reject the insurers' proposals.

Moreover, in news made all the more welcome given that we are two weeks from Christmas, the government has declared its intention to work with victims' groups, insurers representing employers and others to explore new ways to improve the legal process for handling claims from victims of mesothelioma. In addition, proposals to set standardised payments for lawyers making claims will not, for now, be taken forward.

The £350m fund to compensate those unable trace the liable employer is being put in place by insurers and the Department for Work and Pensions through the Mesothelioma Bill, but the bottom line remains this: speed is of the essence. Sadly, claimants often have a limited life expectancy. Their claims need to be settled as quickly as possible, for their sake and that of their families. And so, as much as we should welcome this particular U-turn, let's hope it doesn't lead to a cul-de-sac, and that the best possible means of giving redress to mesothelioma claimants is put in place as soon as possible.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

In praise of RollonFriday and in horror at a racist American PI firm ad

Gone are the days when the idea of advertising their services would make a firm's partners go into meltdown, but the brave new world isn't always good. Take the below ad, purportedly by American personal injury firm McCutcheon & Hamner.

I encountered what is surely a contender for worst-ever PI firm ad on today's RollonFriday update. There are those in the legal profession who seem to live in fear of RollonFriday, but I'm not one of them.

The site, co-founded by former City solicitor Matthew Rhodes (who, in 2011, was awarded an OBE for a RollonFriday initiative that saw laid off City solicitors redeployed to undertake pro bono work), is a scourge of bunkum and pomposity in the law. RollonFriday can't claim to be first to have alerted McCutcheon & Hamner's disastrous ad to the world - that honour goes to the no less estimable Above the Law, across the pond - but it has brought it to a UK audience. And what a remarkably awful ad we now behold.

There is absolutely nothing which is fair, reasonable or even mildly amusing about the ad. It's extraordinary, in today’s world, that any right-thinking person could have signed it off for publication. But that's just what someone, somewhere did - and here the plot thickens.

As reported by Above the Law, uproar about the ad's overt racism prompted McCutcheon & Hamner to issue its "sincerest apologies" - and claim that its YouTube channel had been hacked. "Our firm did not approve the latest advertising commercial," says the firm. "We apologize to anyone who has watched the commercial. Our IT team has been working all morning to get the commercial taken off YouTube and find the person who is responsible for this action."

However, Definitive Television - evidently the production company behind the video - are unrepentant. Click here to learn of their position: that they were hired to make the film by McCutcheon & Hamner, who knew full well of its content. They accordingly refuse to remove the footage from YouTube. Into the bargain, they add insult to injury by justifying the creation of a character they call Mr Wong Fong Shu. He, like other creations, is apparently "intentionally provocative" and "edgy".

What nonsense. The character in the ad isn't "provocative" (another Definite Television argument); he's a nauseating caricature, a slice of racism pure and simple.

No wonder, with ads like these, that American PI lawyers have a bad name. As if the ambulance-chasing tag isn't bad enough, here racism is thrown into the mix.

McCutcheon & Hamner are based in Alabama, one of the bastions of the Confederacy. It's disturbing to find evidence that suggests things in the Deep South haven't moved on from the bad old days. And more worrying still is the danger that racists might warm to the ad; that for all the negative PR the firm might actually get some business out of it.

Let's hope not. And commendations to RollonFriday and Above the Law for making people think.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

When it comes to head injuries in sport, we can learn a lot from looking to America

Hugo Lloris returned to the Tottenham Hotspur line-up on Sunday, but not to the kind of game he'd have liked. The Frenchman has been in the wars lately, with a controversial head injury in his team's fixture against Everton on 3 November. The last thing he would have wanted was to be on the end of a 6-0 drubbing by an effervescent Manchester City frontline.

But at least Lloris was fit to play. Too often, this is not the fate of sportspeople who suffer head injuries. The tragic example of American high school football player Charles Youvella is a case in point. Just over two weeks ago, Youvella died after sustaining a head injury while playing a game in the Arizona Interscholastic Association.

By all accounts a brave and talented player, Youvella's injury came in a Saturday night game, when he was felled by what witnesses described as a 'routine football tackle'. Routine it may have been, but the back of the young man's head hit the ground with considerable velocity. Two days later, on Monday 11 November, Youvella was dead of a traumatic brain injury - notwithstanding, in uncomfortable echoes of the Lloris incident, the fact that immediately after the initial impact he got to his feet and lined up for two more plays.

High stakes

Terrible, premature deaths like Youvella's remind us of the high stakes in many sports, from football, whether American or in the form of 'soccer', to rugby, horse-racing and boxing.

No one would seek to ban people from taking part in sport, the upsides of which embrace an individual's health and sense of self-respect and have a wider societal benefit in fostering discipline, camaraderie and teamwork.

But in many things America shows the way - and last August the National Football League agreed to a $765m (£478) out-of-court settlement with a group of former players who had sued the league for, as The Guardian put it, "its role in hiding or underplaying the effects of brain trauma in the game, while glorifying its violence, a cover-up which has been exposed in a series of recent books and documentaries." Happily - in a development that we should applaud - Microsoft co-founder and Seattle Seahawks owner Paul Allen last week announced that he will fund a two-year, $2.4 million study into whether repeated blows to the head can lead to dementia.

American football is not only sport in the spotlight for its alleged laissez-faire attitude to head injuries. Just this week, 10 players from the National Hockey League began legal proceedings against the league for negligence and fraud, alleging that the sport’s officials should have done more to address head injuries but instead celebrated a culture of speed and violence.

Too robust?

Could the same thing happen here? British sporting culture prides itself on being robust, on taking the knocks and getting up and playing on. But 'being robust' can have deadly consequences. Hugo Lloris was, thankfully, lucky; the next footballer encouraged to play on after a head injury might not be.

The key message is that prevention is better than cure - especially when it comes to brain injuries. We must remain vigilant and astute to the dangers of 'getting on with it'; so too must we keep a watchful eye on medical developments in this complex area. And, looking across the pond, we could sensibly take a leaf out of Paul Allen's book - at the same time as hoping that British sportspeople don't find themselves forced to take class actions to achieve recompense for traumatic head injuries.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

The HMRC's overnight change to policy on the release of employment histories is flawed and dangerous. It must be reversed

Sometimes it's tempting to conclude that the only feasible reaction to policy changes under the present government is despair. For all the committees, consultations and conferences - for all the ticking of 'impact assessment' boxes and due regard for the views of stakeholders - things still seem to happen without rhyme or reason.

The latest example of this comes in the form of an entirely unheralded change in policy by HM Revenue & Customs.

No consultation

HMRC now says that a request for the employment history of a deceased person will only be released to that person's representatives on receipt of a court order served on the General Counsel and Solicitor to HMRC. Only a matter of days ago, it was the case that a deceased's personal representatives had so sign and provide a form of authority for the information to be released. Not any more, thanks to a change that's been introduced overnight, without any form of consultation with affected parties.

The new system has major ramifications for mesothelioma claims. When a person dies with mesothelioma as a likely cause, it's vital for the estate to be able to establish the deceased's employment history. This is often difficult to piece together, but an HMRC work history schedule (based on national insurance contributions) will list all the deceased's employers since 1961. With this information to hand, solicitors can begin the process of establishing where and when a deceased worked, the extent of exposure to asbestos and identifying the correct defendant.

Now, though, the time, expense and inconvenience of an application to court is necessary. Only then will the information be disclosed.

Staff at HMRC's Longbenton office say the reason for this change of policy is "because the records are stored in accordance with the Data Protection Act." In other words, disclosing them would be a breach of privacy under the Act. This, the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers have pointed out, is wrong. It is arguable that, like the right to sue for defamation, rights to privacy die with the individual, but in any event any such privacy rights (if they still exist) must pass to the deceased's personal representatives. It is for them to give consent for the release of employment records.

Delay and expense

Why has this policy change been made? Its only effect will be to cause delay and expense for those who wish to bring a claim for loved ones tragically killed by mesothelioma. It flies in the face of the government's declared aim of speeding up the claims process for mesothelioma sufferers.

A conspiracy theorist might point to the number of ministerial shareholdings in insurers and suggest that overnight changes such as this don't happen by accident. A cynic might point to the government's regular announcements of a war on bureaucracy and say that this is precisely the sort of meaningless red tape it is fighting. And those who feel so despairing at the injustice of contemporary politics that they cannot rouse themselves to vote might simply sigh and say 'what do you expect?'

But I think we should resist conspiracies, cynicism and despair. Instead, we should campaign to reverse this absurd change in policy. Please retweet, comment, reblog and otherwise disseminate this piece and your support for its views in the hope that HMRC sees reason.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Where have all the ethics gone? That the police need a code on ethics is a damning indictment of modern society

Yesterday's Times carried a short piece about the anger of those whose loved ones were caught up in the Hillsborough disaster towards Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner.

Their anger stems from "confusion" over whether Sir Bernard - who, on the day of tragedy, was an officer at a club in Sheffield where families waited for news about fans - gave a statement to the Hillsborough inquiry carried out by Lord Taylor of Gosforth, the late Lord Chief Justice. Sir Bernard is on record as saying that he provided statements to Lord Taylor, but they do not appear in the archives of official documents published by last September's Hillsborough Independent Panel report.

Confusion all round

Sir Bernard now stands accused of making misleading statements about the inquiry into the tragedy. He himself says he was "confused" when he said that he had made a statement to Taylor inquiry.

Hillsborough's families would like the Independent Police Complaints Commission to investigate Sir Bernard's account and why he appears never to have made an official statement to the inquiry, despite having been an inspector in South Yorkshire police at the time of the disaster. The IPCC may well take up the baton; Sir Bernard says he will welcome any investigation they chose to undertake. For now, it would be wrong to prejudge what will come of this.

But if time will reveal the ramifications of the "confusion", the families' ire is understandable. It comes as an IPCC investigation into alleged police misconduct during and in the aftermath of Britain's worst sporting disaster continues. So much remains unresolved about police culpability at Hillsborough that fateful day; feelings cannot but run high.

All this might also explain paradoxical feelings about the Home Secretary's recent announcement that the police are to have their own code of ethics. The Times trailed this towards the end of October with a story headlined: "Officers must agree to 'respect and obey law'."

Ethics go for a bike ride

Draft Code of Ethics for policing in England and Wales
Those who gasped in astonishment at the notion that police officers were being asked to agree to respect and obey the law would only have grown more disconcerted by the story itself.

It transpired that in the wake of 'Plebgate' - the infamous incident involving the police, a politician, his bike and an unholy aftermath - the Home Secretary felt it necessary to issue the police with a new code of ethics. Its core message was exactly as per The Times' headline - that police officers would be reminded, via the code, of their duty to respect and obey the law. The College of Policing, itself a recent creation of Theresa May (who set it up in 2011 to professionalise the police force), had been tasked with drafting the code. The rationale saw professionalism invoked as the name of the game, with the College writing to its members (serving police officers) and saying it was "professionalising the service in the same way we see the General Medical Council's Standards and ethics guidance for doctors or The Bar Council's Code of Conduct of the Bar of England and Wales."

Professionalism is one thing. Having a police force that needs to be reminded of its duty to "respect and obey" the law is another. And yet to look at just three incidents in the past 25 years is to behold a police force that has a dubious relationship with its rationale.

The police are supposed to embody the rule of law. They're supposed to be peacekeepers, not law breakers. In living memory, they were also essentially benign characters, as helpful as they were authoritative. But we have seen poor behaviour by the police at Hillsborough and in its aftermath. We have seen racism – witness the death of Stephen Lawrence and the Macpherson Report. And now, after Plebgate, it transpires that nine out ten police officers believe the force must change.

Perhaps, then, we should be thankful to Theresa May and her innovative new ethical charter for the police. But we might ask what this says about our society. If our police need to be reminded to obey and respect the law, where have all the ethics gone?

Thursday, 7 November 2013

All's not well that ends well when there's a risk of serious brain damage. Spurs were wrong to let Hugo Lloris play on

"It's OK. I'm fine. I want to carry on."

These words are often heard by boxers when they've come round after a KO punch. Whether the fighter is out for just a few seconds, or a matter of minutes, his instinct is almost invariably to fight on.

In fact, the boxer's brain and nervous system have been scrambled so much that he doesn't even realise that the referee has stopped the fight. The minutes of unconsciousness are precisely that. They're lost forever. There's no getting the time back, there are no memories to retrieve. To be 'out cold' hints at just how much damage has been done by the KO blow: after all, we're at our coldest when we’re dead.

A disturbing response

As a lifelong football fan, only rarely have I seen head injuries of the kind that boxing fans often witness. But last Sunday's game between Tottenham Hotspur and Everton yielded one. And the way it was dealt with cannot but be disturbing.

Huge Lloris, the Spurs goalkeeper, was knocked out when challenging for the ball against the onrushing Everton striker Romelu Lukaku. To view the footage on YouTube is to see that Lukaku's knee clatters forcefully into Lloris's head. The velocity must have been easily the same as a boxer landing his best punch.

No wonder, then, that Lloris was rendered unconscious. There is doubt as to whether the goalkeeper lost consciousness completely or suffered a 'transient' alteration of consciousness but what is abundantly clear is that he took several minutes to recover. But astonishingly, and despite his French keeper's unsteady feet when he was finally able to stand up, the Spurs manager Andre Villas-Boas did not substitute Lloris. He had a very able deputy in Brad Friedel, but decided to let his injured goalkeeper play on - mindful, perhaps, of Football Association guidelines to the effect that a merely 'transient' alteration of consciousness does not mean a player cannot return to play.

Villas-Boas also elected to ignore the obvious concerns of his captain, Michael Dawson, who appeared to try to persuade Lloris to go off after he got to his feet. "He took a really bad whack and I was worried when he went down and stayed down," said Dawson. "When he got up his legs gave way, but he stayed on and made two good saves. I lead those boys but safety is the most important thing. He was in a bad way, but, by the time he came around, he was wanting to stay on."

All's not well that ends well

So, was all well that ended well? Hardly. Spurs' decision has rightly attracted much criticism, not least from the brain injury charity Headway. Its spokesman, Luke Griggs, had this to say:

"When a player - or any individual - suffers a blow to the head that is severe enough for them to lose consciousness, it is vital they urgently seek appropriate medical attention. A physio or doctor treating a player on the pitch simply cannot accurately gauge the severity of the damage caused to the player's brain in such a setting as there may be delayed presentation of symptoms." And yet more tellingly: "By continuing to play, the player may have caused greater damage to his brain. He should have been removed from the game immediately and taken to hospital for thorough tests and observation."

Headway chief executive Peter McCabe also commented on Spurs' decision here.

Happily for Lloris, it seems that subsequent scans show that he has emerged unscathed from the clash with Lukaku. But, quite rightly, the Professional Footballers' Association (PFA) says that players should be automatically removed from the pitch should they suffer "a severe trauma" to the head that causes a loss of consciousness. So, too, do players' union FifPro and world governing body Fifa.

Those calling for caution are correct. Spurs behaved in a cavalier fashion in letting their player continue. In such circumstances, just like a KO'd boxer, the decision is not the player's; it is the club's. The club should not have taken the risk of Lloris potentially being concussed and suffering serious brain injury.

In boxing, a KO'd boxer is not allowed to fight again for at least 28 days from the date of the KO. Villas-Boas could still set the right example by giving Friedel the nod and resting Lloris for 28 days. But the odds that this will happen must be very long indeed.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Rob Landman steps up to CEO role at Spencers

Tomorrow sees a change at Spencers Solicitors. I'm delighted to announce that Rob Landman takes the helm as the firm's CEO. Rob's appointment means that I'm taking up a new role - that of Chairman.

Rob steps up from his previous role as Chief Financial Officer, a position he has held with great effectiveness since 2008. In that time I've seen Rob work with such consistent excellence that he has scotched a prejudice that I admit I once harboured: that CFOs do not make for CEOs.

Rob has demonstrated, time and again, that he is much more than just a numbers man. Yes, he has implemented a number of financial strategies that have driven significant cost savings, but more importantly he has shown a superb, holistic understanding of the dynamics of the legal profession and the intersection of the personal injury sector and Spencers' own role in it.

Robert Landman Photo
Robert Landman - Spencers Solicitors CEO
As a fellow board member for many years, Rob has been a vital player in the development of the firm's strategy, helping to re-orientate Spencer's resources and talent to face the modern legal landscape. The firm is now in great shape to pursue a specialisation into the most serious personal injury cases, as well as maintaining its core PI work and building on both a local Derbyshire presence and its national reputation.

Tomorrow, then, sees an important change at Spencers. It's one that I'm excited about, even if it is inevitably accompanied by the difficulties we all experience when letting go of the reins. Letting go isn't always easy. The time has to be right and it is for our practice as well as for me.

Rob needs to be free to be the CEO; he won't prosper if I'm forever on his shoulder, as opposed to being available to him and the practice to succeed. The transition to Chairman is liberating and exciting for me, too. It will further free me up to focus on public policy development, whether through APIL, the Civil Justice Council, or otherwise. One of my abiding passions is ensuring that government policy is not inimical to justice, whether for the individual, groups of people or businesses. As Chairman, I will be able to bang this drum - one which is, happily, in completely in sync with the firm's strategy and vision.

I am looking forward to continuing to work with Rob in our new respective roles. I hope to give valuable input when it's needed, but it is Rob is responsible to drive our practice forward. Rob is wholly committed to Spencers' belief in putting duty before profit, is the perfect man for the CEO role, and will, I am sure, excel in it. I wish him all the best as he steps up into the role tomorrow.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Whiplash reform: riding roughshod over the injured person?

Whiplash is in the news - in a good way, so far as the government and insurers are concerned. Wednesday saw the publication of the government's response to what some might say was a pejoratively entitled consultation: "Reducing the number and costs of whiplash claims". A number of reforms tailored to this apparently noble end are proposed. The result was a welter of media headlines which will have warmed the hearts of members of the Association of British Insurers.

Fleet Street seems to have swallowed the spin that says either that whiplash doesn't exist, or, if it does, that it is always exaggerated by an unholy alliance of unscrupulous personal injury lawyers and claimants on the make. Hence, then, the congratulatory flavour of yesterday's coverage, as editors chose to praise Justice Secretary Chris Grayling for bravely tackling the scourge of fraudulent whiplash claims, those which drive up the cost of insurance premiums, penalise honest drivers and contribute to the dread, if factually dubious, 'compensation culture'.

The devil is in the detail

Reducing the Number and Costs of Whiplash Claims: A Consultation on Arrangements Concerning Whiplash Injuries in England and WalesBut what, though, is the true impact of the reforms?

First up, the government says it wants "an improved, robust system for medical examinations and reporting which will ensure those who make unnecessary, exaggerated or fraudulent claims are deterred from doing so, and that the genuinely injured get the help they need." It therefore intends to introduce independent medical panels, to which claimants will have to submit before a claim can be made. This is sensible, in principle, but it has a flaw: a panel inevitably restricts choice. Better would surely be the creation of a register of accredited medical experts so that the injured person, like any other litigant, can choose his or her expert. There are other questions, too, such as who will control the panel, how its members are vetted, and what sort of appeal process will be set up. 'Independent', rather than funded and administered by the ABI, is key - and the devil is in the detail.

Time to consider ending pre-medical offers to settle

Pleasingly, the government says it will tackle a fundamental problem which has long gone under the radar: the practice conducted of settling cases without a medical report. However, there is a further and associated problem, where a representative of an insurer contacts a person who has been in an accident and offers them a cash settlement, 'to avoid the time, cost and hassle of going to solicitors'. The practice is inimical to justice - it means an injured person is being bought off, without the benefit of specialist legal advice - but it also contributes to the very vicious circle that the ABI and its members lament. Where someone is confronted by someone on the end of the phone offering money for a soft-tissue injury (which may be the extent of an individual’s injury), there will be people who will be only too tempted to pocket the money and run.

This, the practice of pre-medical offers to settle, is a very common insurer practice. Today, as you read this, an insurer will be seeking to buy off a claim before a lawyer ever sees it. During the consultation on whiplash it was notable that many MPs were wholly unaware of this egregious practice. Now that they are, they propose it must be stopped (see the All party parliamentary transport committee's recent report). The government's statement of intent is laudable but it must not be forgotten. We cannot allow a new culture to arise, whereby insurers add avoiding 'the time and hassle of having to get a medical report' into their armoury of tactics to see off claims.

The small claims court limit must not be raised

There is much to comment on in yesterday's announcement, but ultimately it all comes down to justice. Anyone who has ever suffered whiplash knows that it is real, and painful, and debilitating. Why should the insurance industry avoid paying for it, when an injured person suffers through no fault of his own? For avoidance seems to be the name of the game - hence the government's much more worrying statement of intent, that in due course the threshold for small claims court personal injury claims will rise from £1,000 to £5,000. The average whiplash claim sees damages of between £3,000 and £3,500. It is clear that raising the small claims court limit to £5,000 will have a major impact on whiplash claims. With legal costs being irrecoverable, they will, for the most part, be uneconomical. The net result will be that they will disappear.

This would be great news for the ABI, but it takes no heed of the person we should be worried about: the injured accident victim. Having just overhauled our civil justice system in the most radical and comprehensive way for more than a decade, there is no call to change the small claims court limit - and there is every reason to get the reforms proposed on Wednesday 100 per cent right.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Are some lawyers (men) more equal than others (women)? The answer is 'no'

Question: how many female lawyers are at the top of the legal profession? You'd hope the answer would be: "A great many - in fact, they're present in the same numbers as men. Thanks to things like The Law Society's Diversity and Inclusion Charter, not to mention Britain's well-developed equality laws and the way in which society has developed, women are now just as likely to occupy the top roles in the legal profession as men."

Sadly, the truth is otherwise, as the estimable Baroness Hale pointed out recently. Speaking earlier this month at a conference to mark the beginning of the legal year, Baroness Hale - the deputy president of the Supreme Court and, as such, the country's most senior female judge - called for more women and ethnic minority lawyers to be appointed to make the judiciary more reflective of society as a whole.

A lack of diversity

Brenda Hale, Baroness Hale of Richmond
Brenda Hale, Baroness Hale of Richmond

Lady Hale became the first woman to be appointed as a law lord in 2004. She commands huge respect among the judiciary and beyond, but the very fact that it took until the 21st century for a woman to become a law lord cannot but give cause for concern. After all, women achieved partial suffrage in the UK in 1918, gaining full suffrage in 1928. It is remarkable the best part of a century passed before a woman penetrated the glass ceiling of the judiciary.

Since becoming a law lord, Lady Hale has seen the metamorphosis of the judicial functions of the House of Lords into the Supreme Court (which came into being in 2009) - and she has also noted the palpable absence of other women at this level. As she put it:

"While I am flattered and proud to have been the first woman appointed as a law lord in 2004 I do not want to be the last. I am disappointed that in the 10 years since I was appointed not one among the 13 subsequent appointments to this court has been a woman. Things are improving in the lower ranks of the judiciary, but regrettably not yet up here. I do not think I am alone in thinking that diversity of many kinds on the bench is important for a great many reasons."

For Lady Hale, there are two main reasons for the absence of women at the top, as reported by The Law Society Gazette - the division of the legal profession into barristers and solicitors, coupled with the fact that only top barristers have traditionally been seen to have the merit to be top judges. In effect, the system means that men of the same ethnicity and professional background are all too tempted to appoint their colleagues to senior roles.

Diversity - but from the glass ceiling down

The same can be said of the constitution of the majority of law firms. Take any magic circle firm, and ask whether there are as many female partners as there are men; the answer will be 'no'. Many such firms have adopted diversity policies, and yet seem to operate them from the glass ceiling down.

Another of Baroness Hale's observations sums up where we are going wrong. Asked about whether barristers or judges should wear wigs, she said: "I am not in favour of barristers or judges wearing wigs. My main objection is that they are men's wigs… I think diversity of appearance is just as important as diversity of background and experience."

She is, of course, quite right. Why on earth do we preserve the wearing of 'male' wigs, when they come with such loaded, patriarchal and sexist connotations? There are however, valid arguments about appropriate anonymity and gravity, which is a separate matter.

It is high time that the profession took a long, hard look at its commitment to diversity. Are we doing enough? Are we truly equal? Or, as in George Orwell's Animal Farm, are some lawyers (men) more equal than others (women)?

The answer is 'no'. Let's make sure it's heard loud and clear.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Child abusers must be brought to justice. Helping their victims give evidence in court is vital

There have been a number of heart-rending cases of child abuse in the news recently. Each of them is tragic and disturbing. How, we ask, can a mother like Amanda Hutton be so deranged and callous as to starve her four-year-old son to death? Perhaps even worse was the joint enterprise perpetrated by the parents of another four-year-old, Daniel Pelka, who died after what the judge in their trial described as "a sustained period of appalling cruelty."

Daniel's parents were rightly sentenced to life imprisonment in August this year. At least justice was done in this dreadful case. But many other instances of child abuse, particularly those with a sexual element, are regrettably not prosecuted satisfactorily. According to NSPCC statistics, fewer than 25% of 23,000 child sex offences recorded in England and Wales last year ended in prosecution.

The best evidence serves justice

This is a terribly dismaying statistic. It exists not because children are lying but because they do not receive the support they need in order to give evidence in court. Cases routinely collapse; abusers walk free and, often enough, offend again.

Staggeringly, just two per cent of child witnesses received guidance from registered advisors, says the NSPCC. At least half of them did not understand the questions they were being asked. The experience of giving evidence is intimidating enough for adult witnesses in cases without a sexual element; how much worse must it be for a child or vulnerable victim in a sexual abuse case?

It must be terrifying - a reliving of the harrowing events to which the witness was so wrongly subjected, made all the more difficult by aggressive cross-examination by barristers and the inherent formality of legal proceedings. For this reason, NSPCC chief executive Peter Wanless is absolutely right when he says: "It is vital that children are supported by a registered intermediary when they are interviewed by the police and if they give evidence in a trial. Justice can only be served if they are able to give their best evidence."

As Mr Wanless also says: "These children have to publicly relive the most traumatic, upsetting and humiliating experience of their lives in order to try and get justice. A victim of child sex abuse is usually the sole witness to the crime and the strength of the case lies in their testimony."

NSPCC research shows that more than half of child witnesses reported stress symptoms such as panic attacks, self-harm and difficulty sleeping ahead of trials. No wonder, given the findings of the NSPCC's research.

New CPS guidelines

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling
Justice Secretary Chris Grayling

Thankfully, the Crown Prosecution Service has been consulting on this difficult issue, and is soon to release new guidelines. It is to be hoped that they will substantially improve matters for children, and that we will see the comments of the Lord Chief Justice, Sir John Thomas, come to fruition. His Lordship said recently he would introduce a pool of judges with specific training for complex child abuse cases.

Another sensible idea was trailed by Chris Grayling, the Secretary of State for Justice, in the summer. Mr Grayling said that young and vulnerable victims, who have survived the most horrific crimes, will be offered the chance pre-record both their evidence and any cross-examination for a later trial. This innovation is being piloted in Leeds, Liverpool and Kingston-Upon-Thames.

Witnesses in civil cases should not be forgotten

I would go further, and say not only that the scheme should be deployed nationally, but that we also need to look at civil justice, too. Child abuse victims may rightly wish to bring claims for redress, and while the burden of proof is lower in civil cases than in criminal trials, the giving of evidence is just as fraught and potentially upsetting.

In campaigning to bring perpetrators of child abuse to justice we are doing the right thing by improving the lot of victims who have to give evidence in a criminal trial. But let's improve things across the board. Let's bring about the same positive changes in civil cases, too.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

The Alcock judgment: a patchwork quilt that needs to be unstitched

The intensity of last Saturday's football match between Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea was palpable even to those listening to it on the radio, let alone the fans present at White Hart Lane. This was a classic London derby, a game of pulsating action and plenty of bite. Everyone who saw the two sides compete for a hard-fought 1-1 draw would agree that this was football at its most visceral and unforgettable.

After the game, I reflected on football's ability to leave a mark. What happens on the pitch becomes etched in our collective memory, imprinted forever in our consciousness. No doubt the game's inherent theatre, its speed and its competitiveness are reasons for this.

Hillsborough case law on psychiatric injury

But, as the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster looms at the end of the current season, it is important to recall that sporting events can leave a mark for different reasons. And, when it comes to Hillsborough, it is a regret to note that the law on psychiatric injury is both unsatisfactory and borne of what we now know to be erroneous assumptions about what happened at Sheffield Wednesday's historic ground on 15 April, 1989.
A view of Sheffield Wednesday F.C's Hillsborough Stadium

At Hillsborough that day, 96 fans died in a terrible crush early on in an FA Cup Semi-Final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. The crush resulted in injuries to a further 766 people. Those involved ranged from children to the elderly. The tragic incident is Britain's worst-ever stadium-related disaster.

Appalling misinformation appeared in the public domain just hours after the disaster. It grew worse and worse, as the police sought to blame fans for what happened rather than take any responsibility themselves. The Sun newspaper famously poured oil on troubled waters with a front page splash that only its then-editor, Kelvin MacKenzie, believed in. MacKenzie's story, headlined 'The Truth', was a vicious libel on Liverpool fans, and rightly led to The Sun being all but boycotted in Liverpool .

The real truth

But the old saying is that the truth will out - and soon enough it did. The Taylor Report, published in 1990, found that the main reason for the disaster was a failure of police control. Lord Taylor's inquiry also led to Liverpool's fans receiving their first official exoneration - and to the police being roundly criticised for lying and evasiveness. Later, in September 2012, came the findings of the Hillsborough Independent Panel. This categorically found that no Liverpool fans were responsible for the deaths, and said that attempts had been made by the authorities to conceal what happened, including the alteration by police of 116 statements relating to the disaster.

Against all this a number of fans and their families rightly sought redress for their sufferings because of Hillsborough. Indeed, the disaster went on to spawn what remains, to this day, the leading authority in domestic case law on psychiatric injury. That case is Alcock v Chief Constable of South Yorkshire Police [1992] 1 AC 310. Here, Alcock and several other claimants were what the law describes as ‘secondary victims’: they were not primarily affected, in the sense that they were injured or in danger of injury, but they suffered harm because of what they witnessed.

Rewind to what I said at the beginning of this piece. Football is an intense, visceral spectacle, conducted as mass participation theatre. How awful must it have been for those who saw their loved ones at risk, injured or even killed in the Hillsborough disaster?

Alcock needs unstitching

It seems obvious that the effect of what they saw would have been profound and damaging. But the Alcock case, which went all the way to the House of Lords Judicial Committee, imposed a series of  "control mechanisms" to fetter a victim's ability to bring a claim. If these "control mechanisms" are not met, there is no duty of care, and therefore no possibility of a claim for negligence. Chief among them is the requirement that a claimant must perceive a "shocking event" with his or her own senses, either as an eye-witness or happening upon its immediate aftermath. This means that if a father saw his son crushed via television footage, or if he arrived some 30 minutes after the incident, he would not be able to bring a claim.

Lord Steyn of Mostyn has described the law on recovery for psychiatric harm as "a patchwork quilt of distinctions which are difficult to justify". In another judgment (Frost v Chief Constable of South Yorkshire Police [1999] 2 AC 455), Lord Hoffman said that "the search for principle was called off [in Alcock]". The "control mechanisms" were "more or less arbitrary conditions which a plaintiff had to satisfy and which were intended to keep liability within what was regarded as acceptable bounds". Into the bargain, they are more or less impossible to understand by the ordinary man.

The 'ordinary man' - and woman - are the people who were at Hillsborough nearly 25 years ago, they were at White Hart Lane on Saturday and they attend football matches up and down the country week in, week out. The House of Lords has stated that it can go no further than the principles articulated in Alcock, dubious as they are. Only Parliament can legislate for change.

Against what we now know to be the truth of Hillsborough, it is high time that we revisit Alcock. It seems more than possible that its principles were informed by the extraordinary level of misinformation dominating the media and political agendas at the time. It is time for this particular patchwork quilt to be unstitched and put back together in a way that offers real justice for victims of psychiatric injury.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Grünenthal apologised last year - but the company still needs to do more for Thalidomide victims

A few months ago I wrote about Grünenthal, the company behind the Thalidomide scandal. I made the point that albeit that Grünenthal had apologised - belatedly - to victims of Thalidomide, campaigning needed to continue. Sufferers from the disastrous manufacture of the drug, which was sold from 1957 to 1962, still need care and attention, not least because the health costs of living with a Thalidomide disability are roughly twice the amount of payments currently being received.

It would be wonderful to report that now, things are different. I have no problem with good news stories and would love to be writing that Thalidomide victims are now being comprehensively looked after and provided for properly. Sadly, the truth is otherwise. Huge problems persist for the 6,000 sufferers from Thalidomide who are still alive.

For these people, the Thalidomide disaster is still unfolding in their daily lives. This is because as well as the disabilities with which they were born, Thalidomide victims' bodies deteriorate at roughly twice the pace of those of able-bodied people from the age of 50. They have to cope with debilitating neurological problems, tingling, numbness and pain in the affected limbs. They are forced to live in a body which is some 25 years older than its actual age.

Worse, Thalidomide sufferers have had to fight for compensation every step of the way, with Grünenthal protected by legislation passed by the German government in 1971, which means that those afflicted cannot sue Grünenthal directly. Instead, they have to rely on a negotiated - and inadequate - compensation pot.
Help Thalidomide Survivors

For this reason, the excellent Show Your Hand campaign group has organised a peaceful protest outside the German Embassy in London on Wednesday, 2 October. The demonstration will start outside the Embassy at 12.30pm and continue until 2.30pm. Those participating have been invited to bring along a 'spare body part', for example a mannequin's foot, hand, leg, arm, head or the like. These will be left at the Embassy steps with a stark and visceral message: this is what Grünenthal robbed victims of.

As Show Your Hand's press release puts it: "The idea is that those of us travelling by public transport and clutching a 'body part' labelled 'URGENT DELIVERY FOR GRUNENTHAL' will undoubtedly draw attention to ourselves even more than usual - and to the cause."

This is bound to prove true, and I welcome the initiative and courage of victims to continue to publicise their plight in this way. There is regrettable irony in Grünenthal recently hosting a lecture on drug safety and yet continuing not to engage with the surviving Thalidomide survivors, and hopefully next week's peaceful protest will help not only to expose it but also to force a change in the law so that victims can have proper redress. In the absence of this, last year's apology by Grünenthal rings hollow.

For more information, go to and in particular add a hand - it'll take less than 10 seconds.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Calling all practitioners: take time to make sure the Mesothelioma Bill is as good as it can be

The House of Commons returned after the summer recess last Thursday, meaning that MPs now get on with one of their core functions - scrutinising, debating and voting on proposed legislation.

There is little over a week to go before MPs have another break - this time for the Autumn conferences. In that time, it is possible that the Mesothelioma Bill, which completed its passage through the House of Lords in July, will come before the Commons for the first time. A date has yet to be set for its first reading (that is, its formal introduction into the House of Commons, without a debate) but this may well happen shortly. After all, it is a formality, which sees the short title of the Bill read out. There is then an order that the Bill be printed on House of Commons paper for the first time.

Thereafter, there is some way to go before the Bill becomes law. There will be a second reading - probably in October - and after this (a general debate) the Bill goes to Committee and Report stages. Then there's a third reading and further consideration of any amendments before the Bill obtains Royal Assent and enters the statute books.

A laudable Bill

The process is one of checks and balances, designed to ensure that we're not inflicted with 'bad law'. And, when it comes to the Mesothelioma Bill, the fact that there is room for further debate and potential amendment is a good thing. Before explaining why, let's quickly recap on the genesis of this particular Bill.

The government's reasons for introducing the Mesothelioma Bill are laudable. Its aim is to provide compensation for sufferers of mesothelioma by setting up a lump-sum payment scheme funded by insurers. The Bill will therefore establish a mesothelioma payments scheme as well as guidance about the resolution of certain insurance disputes for those affected by mesothelioma. Its introduction is arguably long overdue, given what we know about mesothelioma: that it is a disease caused by exposure to asbestos, with a long delay between exposure and developing the disease (often 40 to 50 years). It is nearly always fatal. Over the years sufferers have faced a massive battle to obtain compensation, owing either to the difficulty of tracing employers or, indeed, insurers. Hence, then, the sensible and commendable advent of the Mesothelioma Bill.

Speed should be of the essence

Approximately 2,200 people currently die in England and Wales each year from mesothelioma, with sufferers having an average life expectancy of only seven to nine months from diagnosis. A further statistic illustrates a problem with the Bill, as it is presently drafted: some 50% of claims for compensation for mesothelioma take over 12 months to settle, which means that sufferers may die before their claims are paid out.

It is vital that the Bill speeds up the process. Speed must become of the essence. The Ministry of Justice is consulting on reforming mesothelioma claims, with one of its proposals being to introduce a new dedicated Mesothelioma Pre-Action Protocol (MPAP), which would replace the existing pre-action protocol for disease and illness (DPAP). The real fear of practitioners is that the new MPAP, if not radically amended, will have the sad consequence of delaying and obstructing, not expediting the conduct of claims.

The Association of Personal Injury Lawyers (APIL) has a clear view of any such pre-action protocol: for it to work effectively, there must be sanctions attached to the non-adherence to the time-scales within it. APIL's brief here is to campaign on behalf of mesothelioma sufferers and ensure that MPs are fully up to speed with all the issues surrounding the Mesothelioma Bill. To that end, APIL has set up a survey, the deadline for completion of which Friday 6 September.

Two fundamental questions arise:

  1. For mesothelioma claims, how often is liability admitted within the protocol period in the current DPAP?
  2. How often is it necessary to leave the DPAP and issue court proceedings for mesothelioma claims?

Please spare five minutes to complete APIL's questionnaire, which can be found here. Your answers will go a long way to ensuring that the Mesothelioma Bill provides the best possible means of redress for sufferers of this terrible disease.

Mesothelioma claims and the current disease pre-action protocol

Friday, 30 August 2013

Cornwall Calls - and I’m heartened by the work of the Surf Action charity

I'm looking forward to a short break with my wife, Susanne, in the far west of Cornwall - a place we know and love. We’ll be checking into The Gurnard’s Head to begin with and then taking a trip to the Hell Bay Hotel on the Scilly isle of Bryher.

Despite its name, I'm assured the Hell Bay Hotel is a lovely and relaxing place. It might be just what we need because while at The Gurnard’s Head we plan to try surfing. The Gurnard’s Head is near the superb surfing beach of Sennen Cove and despite many visits to this part of Cornwall neither Susanne nor I ever got round to learning to surf. I have a feeling we’re going to find it pretty tiring - hence the need to recuperate while on Bryher.

Great work by Surf Action

While researching available surf schools at Sennen Cove (there seem to be two - the Sennen Surfing Centre and the Smart Surf School), I came across the work of a pioneering charity called Surf Action. The name rang bells and I realised I’ve read about Surf Action in the national press. They’re based in Cornwall and have close ties to the Sennen area, and perform a truly valuable service in helping ex-servicemen who have suffered physical injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

If you take a look at Surf Action’s website, I’m sure you’ll be as impressed as I am by the images of its team taking military veterans and their families surfing. Clearly, the people being helped by the charity have suffered gravely, whether through physical injury or the no less debilitating condition of PTSD. It is heartening to see the smiles of everyone in the sea, once they’ve been taken under Surf Action’s wing.

The charity was the brainchild of Rich Emerson, himself a former soldier who knows first-hand just how damaging PTSD can be. Emerson served with the Queen's Royal Irish Hussars in Operation Desert Storm. He became a physical training instructor and thoroughly enjoyed army life.

“I loved serving in the military, experiencing its camaraderie and sense of purpose. I was proud to serve my country and to help in the liberation of Kuwait,” he told The Guardian. 

Surfing is a life-affirming activity

However, as this story recounts, Emerson’s life went off track after he left the army. He suffered nightmares about the war and the things he’d seen, and began to behave very self-destructively. His first marriage unravelled. He drank too much. He felt suicidal. 

What Emerson didn't know was that he was suffering from PTSD – a condition barely recognised back then. Fortunately, he discovered surfing. It seems that no sooner had he caught his first wave than he was smitten. For me, as a non-surfer, I can imagine why - the sport looks so fresh and healthy, so clean and invigorating. Even in the depths of winter I can believe that for its diehards it’s still a positive, life-affirming activity.

Certainly, surfing was a major factor in turning Emerson’s life around. He got himself back on track and then started putting his energy into helping other soldiers who were similarly suffering. The result, now, is the fully fledged charity Surf Action – which was last year short-listed for lottery funding. 

All in all, the story of Surf Action is a hugely positive one, showing how much we can do to help people in need when we turn our minds to it. I'm not sure that Susanne and I will emerge from our Cornish trip as surfers, but one thing is certain: just researching this niche but compelling sport has led me to a great charity whose work is an inspiration. 

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Taking a leaf out of Jesse Owens' book

Lately I've blogged about ethics in sport, not least because, to me, sport operates as a kind of mirror of our moral and ethical compass. Sportspeople are role models; their behaviour affects not just youngsters but adults, too. A society that condones institutionalised cheating in sport is likely to be one with ethical problems elsewhere. As such, we could all do with taking a leaf out of the great American track and field athlete Jesse Owens' book. I particularly like this quote by Owens, who won four gold medals in the 1936 Olympics:

In the end, it's the extra effort that separates a winner from second place. But winning takes a lot more than that, too. It starts with complete command of the fundamentals. Then it takes desire, determination, discipline, and self-sacrifice. And finally, it takes a great deal of love, fairness and respect for your fellow man. Put all these together, and even if you don’t win, how can you lose?

Jesse Owens in 1936

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Hats off to The Spireites. Here’s to a promotion-winning season - and meaningful grappling with Derbyshire's asbestos problem

Hats off to Chesterfield FC. By all accounts the club's away fixture at Rochdale last Saturday was a thriller. It ended in a 2-2 draw, with Marc Richards and Gary Roberts on the scoresheet for The Spireites. Good work especially by Roberts, who also set up the opening goal by Richards.

Spencers is proud to sponsor Chesterfield FC's community stand. Football is important to communities up and down the country: it's part of the fabric of our daily lives, giving a focus and sense of identity to thousands of fans. Wouldn't it be fantastic if The Spireites, under the guidance of manager Paul Cook, can maintain their excellent form at the beginning of the season and secure promotion to League One? So far, so good, with the team unbeaten in three games and sitting nicely in third place in the League Two table.

A long, hard season looms, but the sense in the town is that the talent is there, so too the commitment and dedication needed to mount a promotion push. And Derbyshire's largest town certainly has the stadium for an upper tier football club. The Proact Stadium, with a capacity of 10,504 (roughly the same as newly promoted Yeovil Town, currently adjusting to life in the Championship), is as good as they come. It's easily capable of hosting Championship games - which is where the club aims to be.

Chesterfield could do with a success story. Derbyshire could, too. There is so much to commend about the county's market town and Derbyshire itself, but the area is not without its problems. In particular, heavy industrialism has left a dangerous legacy. I am thinking of the so-called 'hidden killer' - asbestos.

Derbyshire Asbestos Support Team
The problem of asbestos in many public buildings, homes and schools has been revealed by the excellent campaigning work of the Derbyshire Asbestos Support Team. In particular, in July 2011 it displayed a life size model of a house - showing where asbestos could be found in an average house - in New Square in Chesterfield. Colleagues of mine well remember the house (created as part of Mesothelioma Action Day) and the way in which it captivated the interest of passers-by. The charity continues to do its best to publicise the dangers posed by asbestos, not least in our schools.

Management of asbestos in schools is, indeed, a serious worry. Many experts regard its management as inadequate. There is concern that governors have little awareness, understanding or training in managing asbestos. Local authorities are supposed to have individual plans per school and yet many have one for all schools. There is the question of who is responsible in schools outside local authority control, many of which are unaware of the liability they are taking on in regard to asbestos. There is an overall lack of transparency and availability of data. Surely every parent has the right to know of the existence of asbestos in their child's school, and how the known risks it poses are managed? This seems self-evident, and yet the government continues to drag its feet on the problem of asbestos, lagging a long way behind the excellent model for its treatment in Australia.

Some of Chesterfield's children of today may one day don the blue shirts of The Spireites. Here's hoping that when they do, the club is plying its trade in the Championship. And that by then, the government has at last got its house in order when it comes to asbestos.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

In praise of ethics in sport

The football season seems to start earlier each year. I'm sure, when I was a boy, that games didn't start in early August, as they have for all of England’s professional and semi-professional leagues bar the Premier League. My memory might be playing tricks on me but one thing is certain: this weekend sees the beginning of another season of Premier League football.

Hot on the heels of an excellent, thoroughly enjoyable England v Scotland game on Wednesday, I'm hoping that this season's Premier League fixtures will be played in a similar spirit. On Wednesday night, the ancient football foes contested a hard-fought game with skill and passion in equal measure. There were one or two feisty moments, as is only to be expected in competitive fixtures, but what especially struck me about the game was the absence of any malice or cheating. I don't recall seeing any players diving to the turf as if felled by an axe; nor do I remember clusters of aggrieved individuals surrounding the referee and trying to intimidate him into giving a decision their way.

England v Scotland was a tough, dynamic game; it was football as it should be. On Sunday, I'll be watching my club, Chelsea, when they host newly promoted Hull City. Or rather, as they are now known, Hull City Tigers. Quite why the new name was required is beyond me; likewise, I don't understand why one of the other promoted teams, Cardiff City, elected to stop playing in their traditional all-blue strip and play in red.

Doubtless there is some marketing rationale for both changes. And lately, reading Rob Steen's excellent 1995 book The Mavericks: English Football When Flair Wore Flairs, I'm reminded of the era of greats like Peter Osgood, Alan Hudson, Charlie George, Stan Bowles and Rodney Marsh. The book brilliantly evokes their time as players, and is all the more intriguing with its accounts of how flair players dealt with the likes of Ron 'Chopper' Harris and Norman 'Bites Yer Legs' Hunter. Often enough, they gave as good as they got.

Football today is faster and more tactically complex than it was when the mavericks graced the pitches with their fancy footwork. But while the game has evolved, it has, in a sense, lost something. Rob Steen's book is a portrait of a more honest game than we see today. Players would try to gain an advantage by bending the rules, but somehow what they did strikes me as more ethical than the players of the modern game who feign injury and harangue officials. This sort of behaviour is doubtless a consequence of the vastly greater sums of money at stake in football now but there is no excuse for it. It demeans the game and those who play it.

Needless to say, I'll be hoping for a Chelsea win on Sunday. I also wish Hull City Tigers well in their new Premier League incarnation. But as much as I hope for Chelsea success, I hope that maybe, just maybe, this season we will have the privilege of watching games like England v Scotland: hard-fought, competitive and with no quarter given, but with a fundamental honesty. Ethics, in sport, are just as important as they are in other walks of life.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Hats off to the Transport Select Committee for an insightful and balanced Report

Last week saw the publication of the long-awaited report by the cross-party Transport Select Committee on the cost of motor insurance, and in their deliberations a number of sensible points were made.

As significant as anything, though, was the revelation that the report contained this paragraph:

MPs on the committee were surprised to find that insurers sometimes made an offer to personal injury claimants even before they had received their medical report.

Pre-medical offers are wrong

To this, I would substitute the word 'sometimes' with 'often'. As I have previously mentioned, the practice of pre-medical offers of settlement is both endemic and contrary to the interests of justice. How can it be right that injured people compromise claims without the benefit of legal advice?

The committee took a commendably robust view of this practice, urging insurers to put their house in order and stop it at once. Not least in the committee's thinking was the fact that settling cases without a medical assessment, still less with any legal input, encourages the very things that insurers say they are trying to combat (and which drive up consumers' premiums): fraud and exaggeration.

Cost of motor  insurance: whiplash

Common sense about whiplash

What, though, of whiplash? The committee noted that there is no statistical, verifiable evidence to support the oft heard assertion that "the UK is the whiplash capital of the world". In fact, the committee observed that the number of UK claims for whiplash has fallen; and they are in fact below the level they were 5 years ago.

Moreover, the committee found that there was no authoritative data publically available about the prevalence of fraudulent or exaggerated claims for whiplash injuries. By way of a wider point, the committee recommended that the government ask that the Association of British Insurers provide better data about fraudulent or exaggerated personal injury claims. This step is critical to combat fraud, and long over due.

The committee recommended that the government should not switch whiplash claims to the small claims track, by increasing the small claims court limit. Its reasoning is again sensible: namely that there was a real likelihood that genuine claims would not be brought.

There was further congruity between the government and the committee. The government proposed demanding medical reports from accredited medical experts for whiplash claims - a good idea, and one backed by the committee. This will be particularly powerful in eradicating unmeritorious claims, especially if combined with the committees recommendation that insurers stop making pre medical offers. In addition, the committee suggested claimants should have to prove they saw a medical practitioner shortly after their accident.

Hats off to the committee for some sterling work and balanced common sense, and to the government for having the wisdom to await receipt and give consideration to the Transport Select Committee Report before taking further reform steps.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

The Litvinenko case and the principles of public life

Nearly seven years ago, in November 2006, the former Russian KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned with radioactive polonium in London. His widow, Marina, has since been engaged in a protracted struggle to find the truth behind her husband's death. Regrettably for Mrs Litvinenko, it seems that what has already been a frustrating search is set only to get worse.

Two weeks ago, the Home Secretary rejected calls for a public inquiry into Litvinenko's killing. Theresa May outlined the government's reasons in a letter dated 17 July to Sir Robert Owen, the coroner who had asked that an inquiry (under the Inquiries Act 2005) be established as a matter of urgency.

Full, fair and fearless?

Sir Robert made his request on 4 June. Among the factors persuading him that a public inquiry was desirable was the government's seeming determination to keep a variety of documents secret. This, he felt, meant that it would not be possible to conduct a "full, fair and fearless" inquest. A public inquiry, which would, if necessary, enable certain evidence to be considered behind closed doors, was the only way for the truth to be established.

Theresa May did not agree, and expressly alluded to the political machinations behind her decision: "It is true that international relations have been a factor in the government's decision-making." This was taken further by Elena Tsirlina, Mrs Litvinenko's solicitor, who said the decision not to hold a public inquiry followed "months of talks between the two governments at the highest level" including discussion between the prime ministers of Russia and the UK. She added: "What deals have been made behind the scene is difficult to know."

It is easy to sympathise with Mrs Litvinenko. Here we are, seven years after her husband's murder, and no one is any the wiser as to why it happened and who perpetrated it. Rumour and counter-rumour continue to swirl, and the Russian authorities refuse to extradite two men suspected of the killing, former agents Andrei Lugovoi and Dmitri Kovtun (both of whom deny any involvement). The Litvinenko family intend to launch a judicial review on the grounds of "irrationality" into the decision not to hold a public inquiry.

The principles of public life

I empathise with the family's plight. Their plan to initiate judicial review proceedings is understandable. Along with just about everyone, I cannot pretend to know the facts, but then again, that is the point: a man has been killed in deeply suspicious circumstances, and both his family and, given his occupation, we, the public, have a right to know what happened. I also wonder if the decision not to hold an inquiry could have been more sensitively handled.

By way of a wider point, openness and transparency should be watchwords for those who govern us, as, indeed, is enshrined in The Seven Principles of Public Life, also known as the "Nolan principles" given their genesis in the first report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

I republish the principles here. They're worth taking to heart by anyone, in whatever sphere, who serves the public.

The seven principles of public life

All candidates for public appointments are expected to demonstrate a commitment to, and an understanding of, the value and importance of the principles of public service. The seven principles of public life are:


Holders of public office should act solely in terms of the public interest. They should not do so in order to gain financial or other benefits for themselves, their family or their friends.


Holders of public office should not place themselves under any financial or other obligation to outside individuals or organisations that might seek to influence them in the performance of their official duties.


In carrying out public business, including making public appointments, awarding contracts, or recommending individuals for rewards and benefits, holders of public office should make choices on merit.


Holders of public office are accountable for their decisions and actions to the public and must submit themselves to whatever scrutiny is appropriate to their office.


Holders of public office should be as open as possible about all the decisions and actions that they take. They should give reasons for their decisions and restrict information only when the wider public interest clearly demands it.


Holders of public office have a duty to declare any private interests relating to their public duties and to take steps to resolve any conflicts arising in a way that protects the public interest.


Holders of public office should promote and support these principles by leadership and example.