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Tuesday, November 14, 2006 

Scum-watch: Human wrongs over heroin payout.

You have to wonder at times about Rebekah Wade's journalistic instincts. Barley a day goes by in her newspaper without a horror story about a paedophile being printed, her long held favourite topic, for reasons known only to her. Today is no exception, but let's not focus on that. The leading article today is on Wade's other favourite subject: the "crazy, controversial, hated" Human Rights Act.

On the face of it, it looks like the Sun might for once have something of a point. Former prisoners suing the government over being forced to go "cold turkey" from their heroin while inside have been offered an out of court settlement, which will mean that each of the claimants will receive slightly less than £4,000 each.

So far, so outrageous. Surely prison is there for addicts who have committed crimes to be taken off the drugs that cause their behaviour, right? It's here that the government's and the Sun's case falls apart. Far from the claimants being hardened addicts, those bringing the test case had actually all already been receiving alternative treatment, including being given the heroin substitute methadone. When taken inside, rather than their current medical regime being continued, they were forced into going without their drugs either entirely, or within a couple of days at the most. They were given no choice in the matter - consent was not sought, and so they were forced into withdrawal. Not only that, but they was also given no other drugs at all to help with going "cold turkey." Wikipedia records the following symptoms for those suffering heroin withdrawal:

The withdrawal syndrome from heroin may begin starting from within 6 to 24 hours of discontinuation of sustained use of the drug; however, this time frame can fluctuate with the degree of tolerance as well as the amount of the last consumed dose. Symptoms may include: sweating, malaise, anxiety, depression, persistent and intense penile erection in males (priapism), extra sensitivity of the genitals in females, general feeling of heaviness, cramp-like pains in the limbs, yawning and lacrimation, sleep difficulties, cold sweats, chills, severe muscle and bone aches not precipitated by any physical trauma, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, goose bumps, cramps, and fever. Many addicts also complain of a painful condition, the so-called "itchy blood", which often results in compulsive scratching that causes bruises and sometimes ruptures the skin leaving scabs. Abrupt termination of heroin use causes muscle spasms in the legs of the user (restless leg syndrome). Users taking the "cold turkey" approach (withdrawal without using symptom-reducing or counteractive drugs) are more likely to experience the negative effects of withdrawal in a more pronounced manner.

Not only was the government therefore negligent in not providing proper medical care, its actions were also unlawful, as it has accepted. Those in prison are meant to be provided with the same medical care as that available outside, and in this the prison service clearly failed. Oh, and the coup de grace is this: while prisoners argued that their human rights were breached, the case was brought on the basis of medical negligence, not on the fact that their rights had also been additionally breached.

As you might expect, this doesn't get in the way of the Sun's reporting. They focus on one particular prisoner's story: a former bank robber, who they variously describe as "shaven-headed" and a "tattooed thug", who is going the spend the money, err, on setting up a business. Presumably the Sun would rather he spent it on drugs.

Variously adding their voices to the outrage at the state illegally not helping addicts get off their drugs on properly medical administered programs, we have David Davis who reckons that the compensation is:
letting down the taxpayers, the victims of these offenders and the drug addicts themselves”.
Wouldn't it have been better for the government to actually have a proper program for helping addicts once inside prison, rather than leaving them to cope with all the symptoms of withdrawal without any help whatsoever? Most victims of the offenders would not doubt rather have had their assailants properly weaned off their addictions rather than left to fend for themselves with little help from the prison authorities, with the result being that once outside prison they'd be just as likely to go straight back onto the drugs again. Also, isn't the Tory policy on prisons and drug addicts meant to be to drastically increase the withdrawal programs that the claimants were denied? No, it couldn't be.

Next we have Peter Stoker, which is an oddly appropriate name for a spokesman for the
National Drug Prevention Alliance, whose main agenda is to stop the addiction before it starts, and as a result seems to regard cannabis as a "gateway" drug. He says:
I find it disturbing that drug users can sue the Home Office for not looking after them comfortably enough.

“People who have had their money stolen or the faces bashed in to feed their addictions have no system of recourse at all.”

Not much compassion there for those who do unfortunately become addicted then. As for there being no system of recourse for "those having their faces bashed in", Stoker is uninformed, as the
Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority provides that role.

Then we have Ann Widdecombe, using the same logic which made her such a success as a shadow minister:

“It’s an insult to every victim and every law abiding person. As far as I’m concerned there is no human right to continue a drug habit when you go to prison.”

The real insult is that Widdecombe expects the average Sun-reader to believe the tripe she talks. Those who sued were doing so for illegaly not being provided with an adequate treatment program, not because their drugs were withdrawn.

Finally, we have the Sun using a recent victim of the Farepak bankruptcy for their own political agenda:
Sylvia Futcher, who lost £1,500, collapse (sic), said: “The Government seems to be rewarding criminals when it can’t be bothered to pull its finger out to help hard working honest folk.”

Sadly, the government doesn't have to help compensate those who have lost money as a result of private company going bust. While they could certainly be doing more to help those now facing a miserable Christmas, Futcher might be better off turning her anger on the Halifax Bank of Scotland and the fat cats that were running the company, or on the other retailers who could easily out of the goodness of their hearts contribute a tiny amount of their profits to help those who lost their savings. Tesco, which made half-year profits of more than £1bn for the first time earlier this year, has set up a scheme in partnership with the Daily Mirror for their customers to donate to those who lost money. Tesco itself has given a scrooge-like £250,000 to the fund.

The Sun goes on:
It will almost certainly mean thousands more junkie prisoners will now be entitled to receive the heroin substitute methadone.

Estimates suggest it costs £150 a day to keep an addict in methadone. That could mean a bill of around £11million a year.

How awful! £11 million is absolute peanuts, especially for a government dedicated to a new prison building program highly influenced by the Sun's continuing demands for more "yobs" and "bad lags" to be locked up. The government could of course go one better and actually prescribe heroin rather than methadone, a substance which can be much more dangerous than heroin itself, but no doubt that would also result in the Sun being duly outraged.

Wade makes her point in the leader:

GOING “cold turkey” is a distressing experience for hardened druggies.

But you don’t go to prison for being an addict.

You are sent down as a last resort, usually for a string of nasty crimes.

So why is the Home Office paying out big money to prisoners who claim their human rights have been abused?

We should not be heartless to those who need rehabilitation.

Nor should we be paying hefty cash sums to criminals who have robbed us . . .

And will undoubtedly blow it on even more drugs.

Or who could use it just as the breakthrough they need to put their lives back on track. As for being sent down as a last resort, judges tend to be a lot harsher on actual addicts than they are on celebrity junkies such as Pete Doherty. That's half the reason why the prison population is currently standing at close to 80,000. That addicts are badly served in prison, and would be better off in actual treatment programs rather than being banged up and forced to go cold turkey, as the claimants were, doesn't warrant a mention.

By coincidence, yesterday saw the joint human rights committee attack the government's reliance on blaming the Human Rights Act for their own mistakes, illegal actions and incompetence:

It found that in each case the government itself was responsible for creating the misleading impression that it was the Human Rights Act or its misinterpretation by officials that caused the problems. "In each case, senior ministers, from the prime minister down, made assertions that the Human Rights Act, or judges or officials interpreting it, were responsible for certain unpopular events when in each case those assertions were unfounded," says the report.

"Moreover, when those assertions were demonstrated to be unfounded, there was no acknowledgement of the error, or withdrawal of the comment, or any other attempt to inform the public of the mistake." The three cases were:

· The Afghan hijackers. The judgment by Mr Justice Sullivan was described at the time by the prime minister and the home secretary, John Reid, as "bizarre and inexplicable". Yet in the cold light of day the lord chancellor, Lord Falconer, had accepted "unequivocally" that it was right that human rights law should prevent the hijackers from being sent back to Afghanistan if there was a risk they faced death or torture.

· The failure to deport 1,000 foreign prisoners. The prime minister and Mr Reid both claimed that human rights legislation was allowing British court judgments to thwart the removal of foreign prisoners. But after the committee's inquiry, the lord chancellor accepted that the Human Rights Act was not responsible for the failure to deport the prisoners.

· The Anthony Rice case. The chief inspector of probation blamed the mistaken release of the convicted murder on licence on the fact that public protection considerations were undermined by human rights considerations. The MPs and peers, however, found that the official inquiry into the case fails to reveal any real evidence that public safety was prejudiced by the Human Rights Act.

Andrew Dismore, chairman of the joint human rights committee, said: "We are extremely concerned that the Human Rights Act has been getting the blame for ministerial or administrative failings when it has nothing to do with those failings. The government has now accepted that none of the issues we examined provided justification for amending or repealing the act. We are convinced that more needs to be done to explain that the act can be a force for good for the people of this country, as well as debunking negative myths about it."

Did the Sun report this devastating debunking of their demands for the Human Rights Act to be either repealed or amended? You decide.

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