Sunday 27 June 2010

Growing old in Broken Barnet

I have to apologise to anyone expecting an amusing blog, because from now on the subject is not so funny, very difficult to write about, and not so nice to read.

It's about old age, and what might happen to you one day, as it happened in my family, to my father, in this borough, not so long ago. It's about what happens when social care, and in particular the care of the elderly, is farmed out to the private sector, and profit comes before the well being of an individual. And it's a warning to us all of what will happen if, as our local authority, and the new coalition government expand the inclusion of the private sector into so many aspects of our lives.

My father did not 'go gently into that good night'. He raged, raged, against the dying of the light.
In fact, the last two years of his life were simply horrendous, and it's something I will feel guilty about for the rest of my days. I am going to explain why, because I think the story of his slow and undignified demise is a warning as to what can, and probably now will happen, in this borough and elsewhere, in the near future. I'm afraid this isn't going to be a pleasant tale, so skip it if you are squeamish.

My father was much older than my mother. He didn't marry until well into his middle years, and had children at an age when many men were becoming grandfathers. He was an intelligent, hard working man, largely self educated, who worked his way up from office boy to director of an international company, based in the City, at a time when such a position was usually exclusively only in the grasp of priviliged, ex public school boys, a background far distant from his South London, working class roots.

When he retired, in his late sixties, he kept busy and active, still driving down to France every year in his eighties, and keenly following the world of politics and current affairs, accompanied by a daily cover to cover absorption of the Telegraph (which journal was singly responsible for turning his daughter into a enthusiastic socialist, much to his dyed in the wool Tory dismay ...).

When he was 93, however, he began to fail, having a series of falls, possibly as a result of mini strokes, which in turn led to the onset of a form of dementia *. This is a particularly cruel disease, robbing the sufferer of their personality, intellect and memory, and causes enormous distress not only to the individual, but also to their family. With grimly awful timing, our mother then became terminally ill herself. Eventually, due to the increasing immobility and uncharacteristically irrational and aggressive behaviour of our father, and the worsening condition of her own health, she was no longer able to cope with his needs at home, and doctors decided he should be placed in residential nursing care.

Enter Barnet Council, and a social worker responsible for the placement and monitoring of our father's nursing needs. A home was suggested that was within easy access of our mother, and a place was secured there. We were not given any reason to question the standards of care in this home, but were assured that the authority used it for many placements. We were then unaware of any reports that prospective users's families were entitled to read, but it was made clear to us that there were anyway very few places in London which would be willing to take someone with our father's particular needs.

Before he moved to this home, Dad spent time in a local hospital, and at this point was aware enough of his condition to be appalled at what was happening to him. In fact he was suicidal. He fixed me in the eye on one visit and said: 'I'm exhausted now, because I've been running a marathon: but as soon as I can, I intend to make my way to Tower Bridge, and jump off.' After a while, he was then moved down to a terrible ward used to accommodate geriatric patients with dementia and related problems. You cannot imagine the sheer, gut wrenchingly awful state of this place, the lack of compassion, dignity or support shown to such vulnerable elderly patients. It was the first indication of how things were going to be, wherever he went, in fact.

One Sunday, my mother and I arrived to visit and found not only were there no nursing staff present, a patient in Dad's ward was lying sprawled on the bed, naked from the waist down, and completely unattended. We had to go in search of a male orderly who merely shrugged at our concern and obviously didn't see, or care, what the problem was. When he had left the room, my father told us that this man had hit him. Because he was in such a state of confusion, we were not sure whether or not to believe him, although he did seem to have a mark where he said he had been struck. He told the same story to a visiting relative the same day, so we made a complaint and asked for this to be investigated. Nothing much happened, and then Dad was moved to a short stay in a respite home. While he was there, we were phoned and told the staff had accidentally given him someone else's medication. He was then moved to another geriatric ward in a different hospital, which was like something out of 'One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest'.

This hospital, demolished just recently, was one where I had spent a terrifying week when I was a four year old girl, having my tonsils out. Parents weren't allowed to stay in with their children then. I remembered, when I walked up to the entrance to visit my father for the first time, how I had once stood in tears at the window and watched my family go home after visiting time, leaving me there all alone. Now the tables were reversed: as I walked away after visiting my father, I would look up at the window of the ward where he was incarcerated and feel terrible anguish and guilt about leaving him there, alone with strangers who didn't give a shit about him, or any of their patients.

All the immobile elderly patients on this ward were left all day either in bed, to stare at the ceiling, or in stationery wheelchairs parked facing blank walls, utterly silent and heavily sedated. Two lazy, bored and unpleasant care assistants spent the day sitting watching the patients' tv, leaving their charges to vegetate. I noticed my father could barely recognise I was there, or hold his head up. He was dribbling, too. Determined questioning revealed that he had been prescribed a new drug, a dementia treatment with a very heavy sedative effect which has now been banned in this country, and his changed condition was caused by the side effects. This sedative had been prescribed instead of the antidepressant we had asked for: why? Because it made life easier for the nursing staff. We demanded that he be taken off this drug, and his condition and quality of life improved. He was then moved to his new and permanent nursing home.

This home was relatively newly built, with a designated ward for what are termed 'EMI' patients: that is to say elderly and mentally infirm. This ward was behind a locked door, with access only to those with an entry code. There were about a dozen or so patients on this ward, A couple of them spent their entire time in bed, where one would scream abuse and obscenties at no one in particular, ignored by all staff and left to make herself hoarse. The other residents were always sat in the small day room, all day, with a tv left on full blast, which they could not follow, and at the same time, a radio in the same room would be left on for the staff's benefit, playing the sort of music any elderly person would detest, at top volume. To me this symbolised the absolute contempt and lack of feeling that the staff and management of this home felt for their charges.

The residents in the day room were left all day, with no activities, no stimulation, no conversation, no interaction, other than the most basic in relation to meals, the distribution of medicines, and some personal care. They were not taken out, even to the patch of grass that passed for a 'garden' outside. Apart from one other woman who used to come and visit her husband, my brother and I were the only regular visitors to the ward, and it was soon made clear that our visits were not welcome.

Many people with advanced dementia do not have regular visitors - sometimes because their relatives feel that they no longer recognise them, but also in some cases an elderly patient has no surviving spouse or close relatives. Either way it means that these patients have no one to monitor their care, and make sure that they are being treated correctly. It also means that the homes can be run with minimal standards and at maxim profit.

The woman who visited her husband was devoted to him, and would sit for hours with him in his room, just holding his hand, to comfort him. He had lost the ability to communicate, but was aware she was there. The other reason she spent so much time there, I soon realised, was because she knew that otherwise his care would be so awful. The things that we saw on our visits were so appalling that one could only speculate what must happen when no one was there to see.

There was one very old woman on the ward, Flo, who was said to be 104. She was a tiny, wasted, wizened figure who sat all day in her night clothes perched on a chair. She would constantly shout: 'How old am I - NOW?' or, 'I am hungry, and I am thirsty, and I want something to eat, and something to drink - NOW!', all day long, never anything else, ignored by everyone. One day, I witnessed one of the brutal male assistants who worked there, pick her up and fling her into another chair, with no care for her fragility. She clung to his arm in fear, and then, to my surprise, began to stroke it in wonder, almost sensually. 'You have such lovely strong arms, and I do thank you' she whispered, almost pleading with him. He looked at her with derision.

We assumed that the others in the day room were silent because they could not communicate. In fact, my brother, who, unlike me, has the patience of a saint, and a kindly disposition, discovered that several of them, if you tried, would respond to a simple conversation. It was just that none of the staff could be bothered.

One Sunday I called in to visit my father. As usual at the weekends, when staffing was even more minimal than usual, the smell of urine from unchanged incontinence pads was chokingly overwhelming. As usual, no staff member was present. Worst still, Flo was sitting unnoticed in a chair, covered in something I will leave to your imagination, and smearing it all over her face and arms. She had evidently been in this filthy state for some time. I ran off to try and find a single staff member. Eventually I found the so called nurse sitting in an office, her head in her hands, sleeping. She was not exactly keen to clean Flo up, looked at her in utter disgust, and if I had not been there, I had no doubt she would have left her until she could find a lower grade assistant to do it.

Unfortunately, there appeared to be not a single person working in this home who spoke English as a first language, other than the manager. This might seem a trivial or possibly racist objection: it's not. The problem is that for elderly people with highly dependent needs, communication is difficult anyway: for people with dementia, being surrounded by people who are unable to speak clearly with them is a disaster. Of course, working as a care assistant with dementia patients, having to deal with their incontinence, their inability to feed or wash themselves, is difficult and at times unpleasant. No doubt it is also poorly paid. But there are plenty of poorly paid jobs to choose from that are less unpleasant. My experience of many people who work in close proximity with patients like these is that some are undoubtedly totally unsuited to the job, and worse still, a few definitely obtain a kick out of treating these vulnerable elderly people very badly.

I truly believe that, just as we are now finding out the horrific extent of the exploitation of children in care, and in the church, by paedophiles, one day we will be forced to acknowledge the extent of abuse which elderly people with dementia are being subjected to, in some so called care homes. Just as children's homes offered opportunties to paedophiles to exploit and abuse children, the care of defenceless elderly people can be exploited by cruel and perverse individuals. The only difference is that children grow up and are able to report their experiences: elderly people with dementia simply die, and when alive are usually unable to communicate to anyone their experience of abuse.

One weekday I decided to visit at lunchtime. There was one care assistant left to feed all the residents who could not help themselves. While I helped my father, I suddenly noticed that the face of the man next to him had turned dark blue, and he appeared to be unable to breathe. I yelled at the assistant, who barely turned round. Eventually she ambled down the hall in search of a more senior employee. Minutes passed until the only nurse present came to the room. By that time I had started to ring for an ambulance myself. The nurse, 'Phyllis', a fairly elderly woman, decided the man was choking, and forced some sort of clearing apparatus down his throat. I thought he was already dead, and anyway had probably had a heart attack or stroke, in which case this procedure was inappropriate, but she carried on. It was only when I asked if he had a pulse, that she checked this. She obviously then decided he was dead. She left the room and and returned with a bed sheet. To my complete horror, even as the ambulance was arriving outside, despite my protests, she and the assistant bundled the dead or dying man onto the sheet and literally bumped and dragged him across the floor, out of the room. I just could not believe what I was watching, that a man's life had ended in such a dreadful, shambolic, undignified way. Then again, he was lucky to escape more years in that hellhole.

Obviously we complained to the management of the home about what had happened, to little avail. As it happened, as I was leaving one day, I noticed some comment forms left by the body which apparently regulated nursing homes.. I took it with me and filled it in, detailing what had happened, and our general experience of the home. Big mistake. An inspector from this body called me one day to ask my opinion of the home. He evidently had issues with the place, rarely recieved any feedback due to the lack of visiting relatives, and was keen to hear about our experiences. So I told him.

By that time we had had formed huge concerns about the treatment of our father. We found out he had had falls which necessitated hospital visits, without us always being informed, or the incidents written up in a report, as required. Worst still, he was kept cooped up in a chair all day, locked in with a wooden tray, like a child in a highchair. When we objected to this we were told that it was necessary to keep him 'restrained'. We asked them to find a more humane way of seating him, being happy to pay the full cost of any alternative seating. They said we would have to apply for this.

The home had tried to sedate him, like the other residents, because they said he was 'noisy'. This meant that he talked. The other doped up residents kept quiet. When you arrived at the home, you would hear Dad before you saw him. He would sit, usually with his eyes shut, talking loudly and continually to an invisible third party. He did not know where he was, but tried to make sense of it. He knew he was in some sort of institution or organisation.Sometimes he thought he was back at work, and would spend the day dictating long messages about grain exports and shipping contracts to invisible secretaries. At other times, he thought he was still in the RAF, during the war, and would respond to any conversation as if he was talking to superior officers, finishing every sentence with 'Sir'. Or he would josh his old pals about girls - and then his language deteriorated dramatically. After a while, realising he was in some sort of enforced captivity, and because many of the assistants on the ward were from French speaking African countries, and he heard them talking to each other, he decided he must be in some sort of French prison camp - like Dreyfus, I imagine, or maybe the French Foreign Legion - and for months only spoke in schoolboy French. When that phase ended, he would talk in long dramatic monologues, declaiming in oddly regular prose, almost in iambic pentameters. Sitting there listening, I felt like Cordelia to his King Lear, and secretly proud of his defiance, even if it was only verbal, and the gesture of a madman.

By this time, my mother was dying in hospital, and my brother and I were going from care home to hospital, trying to make sure each got the care they needed. We probably didn't have the energy to be as forceful with the home as we should have done: they certainly didn't show us any sympathy at this point. My mother died, but we did not dare tell Dad. We had to keep up the pretence that she was still in hospital. If we had told him, he would have been distraught, and then he would have forgotten, and we would have had to keep telling him. So we lied, and pretended she was still in hospital, which was very, very difficult. And after a while he stopped asking about her.

We tried very hard to get the Barnet social worker to do her job and improve our father's care. She was pathetically reluctant to confront the management of this home, terrified of displeasing them and losing the placement of future contracts.

The worst insult, of course, was that, despite being so ill, immobile, incontinent, so dependent, he was paying hundreds of pounds a month for the privilige of being treated so disgustingly in this so called care home. Why? Because he had worked hard all his life, and had a house and a few savings. Some basic needs were paid for but otherwise he had to pay through the nose for the privilge of being treated worse than an animal. In fact, if he had been an animal, his carers would probably have been prosecuted, Horrifyingly, we were told that the Human Rights Act, and all its clauses about the right to dignity, did not apply to care homes. So there he was, my father, a man in his nineties, who had paid income tax since the beginning of the Welfare State, had lived through two world wars, worked as a volunteer firefighter through the worst of the London Blitz, then fought for his country in the RAF, had never had a penny an any sort of benefit in his life, but at the end of his life, when he at last needed compassionate care, ended up in this fate, literally worse than death. And while others in the same ward had everything free, he was being charged for such dreadful treatment.

We were summoned to a meeting with the home manager to 'discuss our concerns' about his care. The social worker from Barnet came. Instead of pushing for our father's care to be improved, or demanding to know why he was still being kept in the terrible seating which she herself had told the home they must change, she kept silent. The manager shouted accusations at us: we had written to the CSI, the inspectors, to complain about her. We hadn't: just filled in the comment form and answered, supposedly in confidence, the questions of the inspector. We were told in no uncertain terms that if we continued to push for his care to be improved, he would be thrown out. The social worker did not defend us, or dare to protest, apparently for fear that no further patients would be placed there. We left the meeting shaken and terrified at the possible consequences for our father: seen and unseen.

We tried desperately to get him another home. There was nowhere in the area that could accommodate his needs. We found one place which charged thousands of pounds a month, part of a huge international company which presents its homes like some sort of hotel for slightly frail elderly people. The downstairs level of this place was like the foyer of a Marriott hotel, full of bored elderly people sat on overupholstered sofas, waiting for something to happen. If the thing that happened was dementia, they were swiftly moved 'upstairs' where there were literally padded walls and a conspiracy of silence: the d word was never used there, only 'memory problems'. Once these patients became noisy, incontinent or otherwise troublesome, they disappeared. It was made clear that our father would not be welcome there.

On Christmas Day morning, I went to visit my father. By then, we had decided we could not bring his grandchildren to visit because they found the ward so frightening, so I would go on my own. I took one look at Dad, and knew something was really wrong. He was wild eyed, and feverish, and didn't know me at all, the first time that had been the case. Earlier in the week I had noticed he was hoarse and had asked for a doctor to check him out. I went in search of a staff member. 'Phyllis' reluctantly came. I said there was something very wrong with my father, had she not noticed? She looked at me contemptuously and said:'You must realise this is the nature of his condition: he has dementia ...' My brother and I insisted a doctor come. He took one look at him and called an ambulance, because he had pneumonia. He was rushed to hospital and died four days later.

Since he died, until last year, I made the point of reading the inspection reports of this home. Despite the constant poor scoring of the home, the same criticisms, the continual failures to meet statutory requirements regarding standards of care, it was still in business, without any effective sanction from any authority. That means that countless numbers of elderly people with dementia were and presumably are still being placed there and suffering in the same way as my father. Why? Because the authorities, both local and national inspectors, knew that they could not afford to lose the placements these homes supply. The homes will not put standards of care before profit, so they continued to flout the regulations without fear of reprisals. To provide better staffing, in terms of numbers and training, or better facilities and activities and accommodation for their residents, would cut their profit margins. So the standard of care they offer will be the most basic they can get away with, and they can get away with a hell of a lot. The manager of the home mentioned actually has done very well, receiving a big promotion within the company, which is cheering, isn't it?

Some things are different now: in some cases it is cheaper for the council to put together a 'care' package involving home care, if you are lucky, and if you are found decent carers. If.

There is a new body set up to regulate care homes, and perhaps a growing awareness of the issue of elder abuse, and the vulnerability of dementia patients in unscrupulous care homes.

And of course it doesn't have to be like this home was at all, if profit is given a less prominent priority. I used to visit the mother of a friend of mine who was resident in Nazareth House, a Catholic care home in the borough, where the religous ethos of the foundation afforded respect, compassion, and loving support to their elderly residents.

If, on the other hand, we really are moving into a Brave New World here in Barnet, where a Futureshaped council is skipping down the path to massive privatisation and the wholescale dumping of public sector responsibility, we can only expect a worsening of standards of care for elderly and vulnerable residents, and in many other areas. Profit must and will take precedence over the wellbeing of those needing support. Tendered out services will go to the company that offers the cheapest charges, and this can only be done with minimal standards. Cutbacks anyway will mean the loss of services and standards which we have always until now taken for granted. Don't say you weren't warned.

So, talking about -to - my generation - if you stuck through all this to the end - hope you die before you get old? No, don't do that: It's a Wonderful Life & all that, even in Broken Barnet. Just make sure that when you do get old, you're fabulously wealthy, or living somewhere else.
*This is Dementia Awareness Week, 4th-10th July 2010.

Monday 21 June 2010

easyBolics: an interview with Councillor X

Q: Councillor X - what is 'easyBolics'?

A: Thank you for asking, Mrs Angry - 'easyBolics' is my new political model for local government here in Broken Barnet. It is a diabolical combination of idiotic economic theory, seamlessly combined with a one size fits all, no-nonsense return to traditional values, a patronising, inappropriate and inhumane experiment in social engineering.

Q: What sort or shape of future does this new model bring to the citizens of our borough?

A: The darkest of dawns, a bleak apocalyptic end to everything you hold dear, and a sharp increase in the fines on overdue library books.

Q: Dear God, did anyone vote for this?

A: Oh yes, I am afraid they did, Mrs Angry.

Q: What inspired you to create this fiendishly clever new political concept? Was it a desperate desire for attention in order to distract people from the mistakes of your previous political career?

A: No, it was partly for a laugh, to see what I could get away with, but mostly because for some time now I have felt that I am a divine being, with super human powers, and capable of performing miracles.

Q: Er .... what?

A: Well, I was lying on a bench in Tally Ho one morning, knocking back a can of Pilsner, when out of nowhere an interesting thought popped into my head: What would happen if I was dictator of Broken Barnet, and could run it the way I think it should be run ... what would be the most ridiculous idea I could try to impose on the electorate? Something with a snappy soundbite catchphrase, but ludicrously unworkable? 'Better services for less money', said a voice in my head. 'Don't be silly,' I laughed: that's impossible: and who is to quantify better, anyway? Better than what? Better than nothing?' 'Details, details,' said the voice, 'You can do anything, if you want to, or at least you can pretend to, which is the art of political spin, is it not, Councillor X?'

Hmm, so I started thinking ... after all, the good Lord turned water into wine, and fed the five thousand with a couple of loaves and fishes ... why shouldn't I be able to do the same? Since early childhood, you see, I have begun to realise that I have extraordinary wisdom and talents: and like all good politicians, I have always realised that I am not like ordinary people, and yet always know better than they what is good for them. This is why, for example, my colleagues and I prefer to travel by sedan chair around the streets of Broken Barnet, carried by grateful citizens, rather than be expected to use public transport with dirty people. Equally, and is only fitting, we naturally require a higher standard of nutrition than ordinary citizens and expect a suitable and regular amount of public banquets, free lunches and dinners, and, wherever possible, a steady regime of sponsored 'factfinding' trips to warm and sunny resorts in perhaps Cyprus, Florida or indeed anywhere with a four star hotel.

Q: Yes, we've noticed, but have any of you had any proven success in the real world, in the areas of business, finance or economics?

A: Obviously, like most who enter politics, I myself am doing so only because I cannot hack it in the private sector and wish to hide my failings in a life allegedly dedicated to public office.

Q: Then how do you know that easyBolics is a workable economic policy?

A: But that hardly matters: by the time everyone has realised it doesn't work it will be too late, and anyway we can always blame all failures on some senior officer and sack'em.

Q: Well, could you give us some examples of how easyBolics will work in reality? Bearing in mind that your own group leader was interviewed on the BBC and was totally unable to present a coherent explanation of the theory?

A: Sadly, you ladies do so often fail to reach the giddy heights of intellectual brilliance worthy of a male politician like myself. But let me try to make it simple enough for even you to understand, Mrs Angry, bearing in mind that I hear you still struggle with the concept of the offside rule ... Take our new housing policy. According to easyBolics, social housing should be absolutely restricted only to those in the direst need, and even then, only those in dire need who are also prepared to tip their caps, grovel, abase themselves and prove that they are worthy of charity. In other words, a return to the oft mocked Victorian idea of the virtue of the deserving poor, and the innate evil of the feckless, shiftless, undeserving poor who must be punished for their sins. Let the sins of the father be visited upon their children, we say.

Homeless families who refuse to support easyBolics values, or are a pain in the arse costing us a lot of money and social support, we will naturally dump in private accommodation via the easyBolics Slumchoice scheme, in which, as you know from personal experience, Mrs Angry, unscrupulous landlords can be matched with antisocial or even entirely innocent vulnerable families, who are in no position to complain about their living conditions. As long as they are no longer our responsibility, and the longest housing waiting list in the country is dismantled and cut, who cares?

Q: Heartwarming. And what do you have in store for the elderly residents of Broken Barnet?

A: Clearly I am immortal as well as divine, so I shall not myself be in need of residential care at any point in the future, and if my own elderly relatives require such assistance I shall merely move them to a home in another borough, or maybe far away by the seaside so I don't have to visit too often.

So I really don't care very much what happens to anyone else: serves them right for being old and causing long queues in the post office. In line with correct easyBolics thinking, however, we will be encouraging residents to look after themselves in the future, and stop being dependent on others like some form of nasty parasite. Elderly residents who cannot afford the £1,000 upgrade Priority Class level of easyBolics corporate services will be therefore expected to provide their own care: taking turns to share warden duties, empty wheelie bins, and sweep the streets. They may also be placed on pot hole filling duties, if and when we have a recurrence of last year's cold snap.

Q: Some might say, Councillor X, that my feeble attempt to parody your revolutionary approach to local government is almost impossible as the real thing is hardly any more credible ...

A: Is this a parody? No - I'm not having that. I must not be mocked. Stop writing. Let me out.

Q: You don't exist: you are merely a composite of everything I find most despicable in the lunatic behaviour of certain Tory councillors here in Broken Barnet. So sit there and listen. Last week we read that while we are being told that an easyBolics council is about to make radical cuts in spending on essential services, £300, 000 is being spent in creating three new senior officer posts by your administration, in order to, um, save money ... and yesterday, as the Chancellor was laying out his austerity budget and informing hard working public sector workers of pay freezes, one of your colleagues was proudly announcing a 9% rise in his allowance as Leader of the Greater London Toad Protection Project ...

A: This is an outrageous accusation.

Q: But is it true?

A: Of course.

Q: Then clearly there is no point in trying to sustain this parody any longer.

Thursday 17 June 2010

Panic on the Streets of London

Report filed 16th June 2010 re Mrs Angry/ASB:

for the attention of Ms X,
Head of Creative Responses and Desperate Measures,
Room 101, Rachman House, LB Broken Barnet.

Ms X:

As instructed, I have continued my 24 hour observation of the Angry household, in order to note any further outrageous examples of antisocial behaviour by Mrs Angry for use in our pathetic attempt to undermine her complaint to the LGO. This is, frankly, an unrewarding and deeply tedious activity and I beg you to facilitate the promised promotion from my present post in the Broken Barnet poop scoop monitoring department, at your earliest convenience.

However, I am pleased to report to you an interesting incident this morning which occurred at approximately 11.00 hours.

I have to admit that I had fallen asleep at my position, crouched behind the pillar box at the junction of SleazyBarnet Lane and Futureshaped Avenue, when I was awoken by an alarming noise coming from the Angry property. I could clearly hear a woman shouting YES! YES! YES! and apparently yelling with joy, in a shameful and most unladylike manner. My wife doesn't carry on like that, I can tell you. Unfortunately. A passing postman and an old woman walking a dog stopped in their tracks and tutted, in fact the elderly lady remarked that anyone would think we were in Sunderland, * and that if so the woman in question would be ASBOd. (Maybe there is something in this? Can we run this by the Legal team?)

Taking my binoculars from my raincoat pocket, I noticed that a 'For Sale' sign had been erected outside the property next door to the Angry household, that is to say the former residence of the severely traumatised and grossly misunderstood Smith family. For some reason, the erection in question had produced a feeling of great satisfaction in Mrs Angry: more proof of her shameless and vulgar enjoyment at the misfortune of others, her total lack of respect for the rights and well being of the poor Smith family, and the blatant disregard for all the inconvenience caused by her to the commendably responsible and caring landlords of the property in question. (I hear, incidentally that Tracey Smith has now written a heart wrending account of her ordeal entitled: 'Don't Make Me Angry: a shocking life story of Sixteen Months as the Totally Innocent Victim of Middle class Persecution and Shameless Window Dressing', soon to be available in the 'Tragic Life Section' of WHSmith.)

I continued my covert observations. Mrs Angry exited the house at 11.15 hours, and I then followed her all the way to Waitrose, where I was obliged to hide behind the fruit and veg counter, which was difficult, as a notorious Finchley housewife known to the authorities as 'Mrs T' (would be blogger, not the wife of enemy of the state Rog T) was already lying there comatose on the floor, with a half empty bottle of Pimms, claiming to be a 'Friend' of our new MP, and incoherently muttering about 'thickheads' and fitness tips of the day - and had to be removed by security.

Due to the confusion, I shamefully failed to observe the contents of Mrs Angry's shopping basket, but when she returned, I am sure you will be shocked to hear that she once again covered the front of her window with bunting, balloons, and a large banner emblazoned with an enormous pair of knickers, with, er, your initials on them, Ms X, and a lewd message.

Within minutes, a large crowd of interested onlookers had gathered in SleazyBarnet Lane, causing gridlock throughout West Finchley, and then the whole of Broken Barnet: by six o'clock the entire Greater London area was at a standstill, Mr Cameron was obliged to call an emergency session of COBRA, and inform the Pentagon. President Obama was recalled from Congress.

Clearly this woman and her bunting are not only a menace to society, but a risk to the stability of the global community. I have suddenly remembered, therefore, that we long ago decided to immediately search for another property more suitable for her family's needs -possibly a six bedroomed detached house with pool in Totteridge, or Bishops Avenue. Perhaps this is the way forward? Just a thought.

Is that enough? Can I go home now?

* See earlier blog, Trouble in Paradise, 16th April ...

NB: Mrs Angry would like to make it clear that she does not wear outsized undergarments, has never displayed any undergarments in her window, and is yet again the victim of unwarranted attacks on her good character.

Oh; and update, 17th June: the For Sale sign has been removed! Word on the street is the lovely owners are still arguing, in their charming way, about whether they can squeeze more money out of their old mum's house by getting in more tenants! Isn't that good news?

Mrs Angry is now having to decide whether to set fire to herself, or the house next door.

Friday 11 June 2010

Mrs Angry: social delinquent

Well, I haven't updated this blog until today for a reason. And that is because for the last week or so, I have been in a fit of deep despair. Again.

About a week ago, we received a prelimary response from the Local Government Ombudsman. We have never held out much hope of our complaint, first submitted in er, what, October last year, coming to any favourable conclusion, not because we do not know we have been treated very badly, but because the Ombudsman procedure is strictly limited in its powers, and many maintain is direly in need of reform, being so weighted against the needs of complainants and being predisposed to work to the advantage of the authorities. The other day, in fact, I found a website,, which, if I had seen before we started this process, would probably have persuaded me not to bother. Take a look, if you are interested, or struggling for justice from any cynically obstructive, morally bankrupt, and hopelessly incompetent local authority. It won't make you feel any better.

We were told, despite misgivings, last year, by someone who has great experience in dealing with LGO cases that ours was a good one, and worth pursuing. The fact that, despite every obstruction put in the way by Barnet, we did eventually manage to get an active investigation at the beginning of this year was a sign that we certainly had a case that needed addressing. This served its own purpose, as from that point on, a noticeable change took place in the attitude of the authority to the Smith problem, and instead of leaving us with no suggested solution, other than to install £10,000 worth of sound proofing to block out the sound of Mrs Smith 'whacking' her sons, or taking a private action, whcih the council assured us would be bound to be sympathetically heard (because we had so much evidence which they weren't going to use), a resolution was at last put forward.

So it was almost with academic interest now, I suppose, that we have continued our complaint, or rather left it to the arcane mysteries of the Ombudsman process. I had almost (almost) forgotten about it, in fact, when a package arrived last week containing, amongst other material, a first stage response, and in particular, comments on our complaint made on behalf of Barnet Council by a certain senior council officer. Let's call him/her Ms X. I hope he/she reads this, and perhaps some vestige of conscience might stir somewhere in her soul, if she has one, in the dark hours of her night. But I guess that would be too much to hope. When I looked at some of the shameless bilge written by this person on behalf of the council, you see, I very nearly lost my mind. In fact, I threw the letter on the floor, walked out of the front door, up the road, and found myself sitting on a park bench in a state of total bemusement. wondering if I was about to have a stroke.

I won't go into full details about the contents of this officer's statement, as it would be inappropriate at this point, but let me just say that even I, the veteran now of more than a year and more's worth of Barnet Council's Machiavellian working procedures, am staggered by the well, interesting and selected version of the truth and countless inaccuracies that her written comments contain. Rather stupidly, many of these 'misrepresentations' are easily proven as such and indeed are contradictory within the same documents. Many of the people who read this blog come via the Neighbours from Hell in Britain site and I think that they may well be familiar with this sort of corporate sponsored 'creative writing'. And it won't make any difference if these errors and distortion are corrected, I am sure, as for every one you cut down, another will spring up in its place.

It is so hard for an ordinary resident to pursue any complaint like this. You have no support, no guidance, and precious few resources to help you. Unless of course you are fabulously wealthy and can afford legal advice at a cost of several hundred pounds a go. The authority you are complaining about, on the other hand, has of course an entire network of resources : professional officers adept at fending off complaints, and presenting selected information in the best light, legal departments, files of information to which it will have access but to which you will not, for reasons of 'data protection' ... There is no way in which you can compete: it is like a tiny mouse trying to fight a pack of lions.

So I have spent the week thinking very carefully about what to do. My first reaction was to just throw in the towel, because I have just had enough of the whole damned thing, and I don't know if I can keep going, and what will it acheive anyway? The amount of stress that this whole experience has dumped on me is difficult to convey, but anyone who has been through something similar will understand how hard it is to fight something like this at the same time as living with the situation you are trying to escape. It really does take its toll. I felt that I couldn't, didn't want to, put myself through any more anxiety over this situation. More letters, more point by point dismantling of the council's lies and distortions and convenient ommissions: what for? They will get away with it in the end because of one huge drawback in the LGO remit.

Any maladministration can only be proved if an authority has failed its own standards or procedures in some way. Of course Barnet has already admitted to the LGO that it was guilty of treating our complaint incorrectly, and other procedural failures to do with keeping us informed of developments. Barnet has a very nasty habit of failing to follow procedures at times when it suits them. Breaches of the Freedom of Information act in response to requests by us about the Homechoice scheme, and other examples such as sadly missed blogger 'Don't Call Me Dave''s attempts to access councillors' expense details are, or should be, deeply concerning to all of us. Now you might attribute this sort of thing to genuine incompetence, which itself would be unacceptable, or something more sinsister, ie a cynical and deliberate abuse of procedure for political reasons. And what happened to our complaint is no different. Barnet eventually and sniffily offered us the grand sum of £500 for what was, to the council, a very useful delaying tactic, cheap at the price, in fact, but barely covers the legal expenses we incurred in sending an unanswered letter to their irresponsible landlords, let alone compensate us for all the additional, totally unnecessary, and prolonged trauma that this convenient abuse of the complaint system caused us.

In regard to the way in which it dealt with the antisocial behaviour, things are more complex as there are, it seems, in Barnet, no clear cut procedures anyway, or standards to measure their actions by, so they can't really fail to administer something that wasn't in place. If you see what I mean. Terrific.

There surely is an urgent need for a body which not only fairly monitors the behaviour of local authorities in disputes like these, redressing the imbalance in the system and giving the complainant a more complete access to justice, but also legislation which sets national standards to which authorities must comply in areas such as dealing with antisocial behaviour, with clearly defined time limits. That might prevent any more victims like us being forced to go through such a prolonged period of distress while the authority concerned makes up its mind what it is going to do, or fail to do.

One would hope that David Cameron's coalition government might like to put measures in place that will protect the rights of ordinary families in situations like ours. But as that would involve telling local authorities what to do, and Dave and his chums want local authorities to do what they want, with even less input from central government, there ain't much hope of that. You might even think that the Human Rights Act might cover these issues already, and in theory it does, but in practice, apparently not, at least not in Broken Barnet. This borough is run by Tories whose values are not anything that most traditional Conservatives would recognise. You might imagine that support, in a Tory borough, would be given to the homeowner, the ordinary law abiding, tax paying family, rather than the benefit dependent, law breaking and abusive household like the Smiths, but no, not in Broken Barnet/easyBarnet. That would have cost implications. Here in Broken Barnet, money is more important than justice.

How amusing, incidentally, to see this week a story in the local press causing so much upset because our council would not fly the England flag over the Town Hall, for the reason, according to Councillor Andrew Harper, that it would cost too much. Compare this admirable penny-pinching attitude to the grossly inappropriate and self indulgent creation of three new senior officer posts advertised last week by Barnet Council, at a cost of more than £300, 000: a totally unnecessary and shameless splurge at our expense, at a time when, for example, we are told wardens in old folks' homes must be cut because we cannot afford to pay for them. Why have these posts been created? To save money. Er ... ?

I invite any of the Tory supporting residents of this borough who voted this feckless lot back in power to explain to the rest of us what you think of such proposals. Of course it may be that Leader Lynne Hillan, who has, after all, a proven record of outstanding business acumen, has been going though the books, and found some secret funds(maybe savings from the deleted antisocial behaviour officer post, or some ASBOs that never got to court?), or maybe she got back some of the millions her predecessor, our new MP, lost in Iceland, in which case I defer to her superior judgement.

So, anyway, all week I have been debating whether or not to put my sanity first and ignore the LGO process from now on, or to continue to stand up for what I know to be the truth, and demand justice for what we feel has been a betrayal of our right to live a normal family life in our own home. Seems like a simple decision, I suppose. But it's not that easy.

A couple of weeks after the Smiths left, the owners of the property next door brought in some workmen to renovate the house. Of course, being the sort of unpleasant people they are, they even managed to fall out with these workmen, who seemed to have left after some sort of argument. We became concerned as to what was going to happen to the house now: very concerned. Once or twice Mr Angry has encountered two of the brothers who own the house, at a distance: tellingly, they avoided eye contact and looked embarrassed, as well they should. This week, however, one of the brothers was seen with what must have been prospective tenants or buyers: my heart sank. They were not exactly an encouraging sight, and one pair stormed out in a row, shouting, 'You say four bedroom: not four, only three, you lie ...' Up to their old tricks, it seems: should have expected it. And with this in mind, it may well be that we have to keep the pressure up via the old LGO after all.

Because the horrible, frightening thought which is now keeping me awake at night is: are we going to be living next door to more Homechoice tenants? Barnet have refused to count this out, despite everything that has happened. And in the comments by Ms X, the senior officer at Barnet, there is no criticism of the landlords at all, no mention of the lack of cooperation with the police, the rat infestation that had to be cleared, the fact that by the end of the tenancy they had fallen out with tenants and council alike, and were apparently demanding compensation for damage to their property! No, if you read her remarks, you would believe they were model landlords, with model tenants, who only needed 'support'. So: more of the same, then? Are we going to have to put up with more problem neighbours? Will we have to move out of our home? Anyone who has followed this blog from the beginning, or lived through an ordeal like this might have an idea of how we feel. It just seems never ending. Hence my despair.

And I realised then that it isn't over. I can't draw a line under it all and 'move on'. We are still facing an uncertain future. Once again, I just feel overwhelmed by anxiety about what we may have to face in the next few months.

I looked again at the letter from the LGO today, the first time in a week that I have been able to bring myself to do so. I read and reread the sentence which drove me out of the house, into a state of incipient madness in the park. Not for the first time in our dealings with Barnet council, I did not know whether to laugh or cry.

Anyone who has read this blog will have had a taste of what we have had to put up with in the sixteen months that the Smiths were resident next door. I've only included some of it, so just imagine the rest.The hundreds of incidents of antisocial behaviour. The drug use, the drunkenness, the domestic violence, the abusive language, the harassment, the continual noise, the constantly disrupted sleep, the numerous crime reference numbers relating to police attendance, the arrest of Mrs Smith's daughter after a violent assault, the notice served on Travis Smith for harrassing us: etcetera, etcetera, etcetera, ad nauseum.

But Ms X, the senior officer who responded to the LGO, mentions none of this.
She reverentially refers to the 'needs' of Travis Smith and his ADHD, and goes out of her way to present Mrs Smith as nothing more than a tragic victim of circumstances. No reference whatsoever to the drug abuse, the violence, all the antisocial behaviour of the other members of the family, or indeed, the lodgers and many other associates of the household who were openly accommodated by Mrs Smith. She can't mention that because that would only serve to underline the complete failure of the council to offer any consideration of our rights and well being. The fact that the Smiths were moved was never because of any sympathy for us, or acceptance of responsibility for the inadequacies of their housing policy in action; it was because of the long delayed activation of the LGO investigation - oh and possibly due to some uncomfortable publicity in a pre election period.

We could of course turn the whole thing on its head and say, ok: by your non existent standards, it is true, then, that you are not guilty of maladministration in your handling of the ASB of this family, because there were no standards capable of protecting innocent victims like us from such an experience. Hmm: that doesn't say much about your commitment to the residents of the borough, or in tackling the challenges of Broken Britain, does it? When the perpetrators of such behaviour are given more consideration than their victims? How does that fit into Conservative political philosophy?

As for Ms X: one has to ask if she and some of the other senior officers and councillors involved in this case do actually understand, or care, about the impact that living through a situation like we did has on your life. The truth is that they probably don't give a damn, as long as it doesn't happen to them.

No where in her comments does Ms X mention that throughout our hellish sixteen month ordeal we did not once retaliate, or respond in any way, despite all the distress we endured and the extreme and constant provocation. That we conscientiously did everything the council and police asked us to do. That Mr Angry only spoke - politely - to Mrs Smith on one occasion, after being kept awake literally all night, as we were night after night for months on end, by Troy Smith and his yob chums - she of course as usual skilfully deflected the blame on her poor son Travis (who has ADHD, did you know?) despite the fact that it was nothing to do with him.

As for me, I have never spoken to Mrs Smith, being so terrified of her, and her menacing household, and despite her informing me, or rather screaming at me on two occasions, her decided opinion that I am a 'fucking cunt' or, on a more friendly day, that I am a 'fucking cow'.

We have always followed official advice and tried hard to resist responding to their obnoxious behaviour, and scupuously done everything we were told. Where did it get us? Absolutely f***ing nowhere. And worse.

Everything we had to put up with has been completely ignored. Reading Ms X's comments, you would think that we had spent the last sixteen months living next door to the Waltons, or maybe the Von Trapp family. And then, in a paragraph which is supposed to be an initial response to the complaint in general, in a paragraph in which our name is, incidentally confused with the Smiths, and detailing for some reason the remarkably saintly behaviour of Tracey Smith, who we are told was 'happy' to move, being such a nice cooperative Neighbour From Hell (into a special type of tenancy that is only available to families proven to be guilty of ASB) and what do we read? A nicely placed throw away comment, obviously meant to cast me in the light of one of the worst villains in modern history. You will be shocked, be warned. This seemingly trivial example of Ms X's attempts to justify the actions of the council in our case is actually the one sentence in the whole report that very nearly caused me to spontaneously combust - says Ms X:

'(Mrs Smith) was happy to sign up and moved out last week. Lovely woman. Mother of the Year. But look what happened then. Ms X can hardly contain her her disgust. 'When Mrs Smith moved out Mrs Angry displayed banners saying 'Bon Voyage' and balloons on her (Mrs Angry's house).'

There. Now you see me for what I am. A despicable, contemptible, untrustworthy woman who may not not indulge in drug abuse, domestic violence, criminality or antisocial behaviour, but who, for no reason, at the drop of a hat, nips up to Waitrose and sticks a few decorations in the window in full view of passing motorists and unexpectedly returning Neighbours From Hell. I am so ashamed. Lock me up, and throw away the key.

I had an overdue library book once too.

Oh dear.

If you remember, we were rung by the police on the night the Smiths left, to say that they were definitely going at eight o'clock that night. We watched them drive off, and the house was for the first time in sixteen months silent all night long.

I had long ago promised my daughter, who, with my son, has put up with a prolonged and intolerable situation that no one their age should have to endure, that when the Smiths finally left, we would celebrate. So we had a bottle of champagne, which had been chilling in the fridge for some time during the long last few weeks of rumoured moves. Thank God no one told Ms X about that. The next morning, as promised, I put some white balloons on the front door, and some Waitrose best bunting in the window, yes, with a small bon voyage sign. It was partly a joke to show our friends who pass by on the way to school in the morning that we had been liberated. Do you blame us? What we didn't know of course was that the Smiths, who we had been assured had finally gone, would return, and see this display. But so what, after what we had put up with? That night, as recounted in a previous blog, they slipped into the house next door and left a nice surprise for us all over our doorstep. They got the last word, as is only fitting, I'm sure you will agree.

So Ms X decided to ignore all the terrible things the Smiths have done, and draw attention to the one gesture of defiance that we ever dared to take: after we had been informed by the police that they were finally gone. That is very interesting, isn't it? Why does she feel the need to mention this dreadful example of Mrs Angry's social delinquency, I wonder? Of course smear tactics are a favoured ploy in this borough in some quarters, as we have seen.

What do you think, dear readers?

How I regret, now, not doing something that was really worthy of inclusion in this woman's pathetic attempt to discredit our case. You see, friends, virtue is not always its own reward, after all.

And so, here is Mrs Angry's advice to any of you who may be in the same situation as we were.

If you live in this borough, unless you live in a council property, don't bother asking the council for help. They won't. If appropriate, contact the local police.

Log everything that happens, so that you have evidence. Make sure you have witnesses to some of the trouble, or maybe CCTV.

If you are being harrassed or intimidated, and you can provide evidence, use it, insist the police see it and take action.

If all else fails, and a friendly cab driver offers to get a pal of his to teach the b******s a lesson, say no. But give him a good tip.

Or start a blog.