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.