My name is Tom Bell, I am the author of Lions, Liars, Donkeys and Penguins — The Killing of Alison. These past few months, I have had the opportunity to contribute my thoughts to a review of the justice system in relation to what happens when things go wrong in our Public Services, and systemic failures result in deaths or injury. The review, which led to the production of an imaginatively titled document called, “When Things Go Wrong — The response of the justice system”, contained over fifty recommendations. It was coordinated and produced by an independent organization called Justice (www.justice.org.uk). Justice is an all-party law reform and human rights organization that works to strengthen the justice system in the UK. I must confess that until I was forced to acknowledge the shortcomings (yes there are some) of the UK’s justice system, I was blissfully unaware of their existence.
I think my ignorance was in part fuelled by a blind belief in our hallowed British justice system. We, in the UK, have been led to believe that our courts and justice processes are the envy of the world; the finished product, a leading light, an exemplar all others aspire to emulate. It might be one of the better systems of justice, who knows?! But based on my experience I think any country looking to ours as an example of what good might look like has fallen victim to the great Public Relations effort the UK has become so good at.
Having now been on the wrong end of so much systemic injustice and poor practice from our healthcare system and Public Sector Services these last few years, I think I have now finally realised what the UK is really, really exceptionally good at. Our USP, the area we lead others and excel on the world stage in, appears to be telling the rest of the world what we are exceptional at. This, of course, doesn’t translate to meaning, we are actually good at it. But we are absolutely brilliant at saying we are good at it.
Personally, I think we, that’s the “royal we”, the entire UK, needs to take a good hard long look in the mirror when it comes to the parlous position of democracy and justice in our country. A few years ago, a Mafia expert, an Italian journalist called Robert Saviano — and no, I don’t really know what expert in this sense means or how you study to become one, but let’s run with it — said the UK is one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Saviano has clearly never been to Nigeria, but his claim is alarming, nonetheless.
I genuinely welcomed the chance to have my say and input into the important work Justice were doing. After what I and my family have been through I find it incredibly cathartic to be listened to, to be acknowledged and have my voice heard. I am an optimist by nature. Worryingly us optimists die earlier than our pessimistic counterparts because the strain of all the disappointments we encounter has an impact on our life expectancy. I can vouch for that! They say it’s the hope that kills you and now the scientists have the evidence to prove it. If you want to live a long life, then the secret it would seem is to expect little from it, therefore avoiding the disappointment resulting from the dashing of your rosy expectations. Regardless of the facts, I think it would certainly feel like you had lived longer if you chose to live in such a despondent way.
It was extremely heartening to be involved in the review Justice undertook, an important piece of work, one which I sincerely, if not overly-optimistically, hope will make a real difference to many. It may seem a slightly superficial observation to make, but the simple fact that the knowledge of the things I have experienced was welcomed by those undertaking the review meant a great deal to me.
Someone wiser, and sickenly also younger than me, most of the great quotes I draw on are from the dead, suggests that the greatest respect you can offer a person is to listen to them. Bryant H McGills’ superficially simplistic words are far more significant than at first glance they look; just ask anyone who has rung the Samaritans about the true value of being listened to as they have teetered on the edge of the mental abyss. I have that T-Shirt in my collection as well and I now try to listen to others more than I ever have. Listening, really listening, isn’t as easy as you might think. But the more I do it the better I get at it.
Too often in our Public Sector Services, the voices of those who have experienced harm and wrongs done to them and their loved ones, are written off as the extreme views of people with an axe to grind and an agenda. People in my position are viewed as unfortunate exceptions to the rule and hence unreasonably demanding, overly bitter, irrationally angry, and undeserving of meaningful engagement. And sometimes we are angry, intensely, and passionately angry, and that’s ok. Of course, the irony of my anger, like the anger of many whose loved ones have been harmed, is that it increases the more we are not listened to. Though it was utterly shocking and heartbreaking to find out my sister had been abused in the care of an NHS mental health hospital, it has been infinitely more devastating and emotionally destructive to watch as the Public Sector has attempted to hide the evidence of its wrongdoing. The cover-up has now become the real source of outrage.
Public Sector bureaucracies create a self-fulfilling and highly convenient prophecy by distancing the people they have wronged, then writing them off as they become increasingly angry. I was once warned about being overly forthright in an email I sent to the Crown Prosecution Service. It might be un-English, but telling them that, “I was very jolly well upset by their decision not to prosecute the mental health nurse who had sex with my sister on hospital premises when she was a patient”, just didn’t feel as appropriate as telling them I was “absolutely fucking gobsmacked”.
Anger in the face of injustice has become energy for me and many like me, and I have to admit that sometimes it’s the only one sustaining me. People get angry about the things they care about, I care deeply about justice. Anyone who expects us, and believe me, there are a seemingly ever-increasing number of “us”, not to be angry and upset when the systems we believe in and pay for, fail and then mislead us, has never experienced what we have experienced.
Being listened to gave me a lift and helped restore a tiny bit of faith in the justice system. Just seeing my name listed as one of those who had contributed by sharing my time and expertise with the reviewing panel felt like a positive part of salvaging something useful from the tragic wreckage of Alison’s death. It also helped me acknowledge something to myself I have taken some time to admit — it wasn’t one of the life choices I ever envisaged, but I have now become an expert by experience in the field of injustice.
As the true method of knowledge is experiment, the true faculty of knowing must be the faculty which experiences. This faculty I treat of. William Blake