In praise of public services

It is a wonderful thing to live in a civilised country, in which the needs of the most vulnerable in society are met by public institutions and paid for out of the public purse.

Micheline (not her real name, but she is real and this is a true story) was sleeping rough in a little square in Victoria. She would find clean cardboard boxes every evening and bed down between 11 pm and 5 am. In the morning she would wash and groom herself for 50p in one of those automatic public loos. She likes to keep clean and tidy. During the day, map in hand, she would walk the city, going as far as Brixton, Peckham and even Lewisham, sometimes pushing the supermarket trolley in which she kept her possessions. In the evening she would return to her comfortable little square not far from Victoria station. Sometimes people at the bus stop would give her a little money. She would buy Sainsbury’s own brand products to feed herself as they were cheap.

After over a year on the streets, Micheline was picked up by the police and placed in a psychiatric hospital under Section 2 of the Mental Health Act. The law stipulates that a mentally disordered person “may be detained for a period not exceeding 28 days beginning with the day on which he is admitted, but shall not be detained after the expiration of that period unless before it has expired he has become liable to be detained by virtue of a subsequent application, order or direction under the following provisions of the Act.”

Micheline had been admitted compulsorily to a psychiatric hospital in Victoria, near where she had been staying. She is charming, looks after herself, is quite chic in a simple way, particularly to an English eye. This is perhaps because she is French Caribbean, from Guadeloupe. She had taken the Eurostar from Paris to London in May 2009, to re-visit the city she loved, which she had first visited as an au pair in 1985, the year her parents died. She was quite confused and evasive about her parents, natural or foster, and always changed subject when asked about them, as if the best way of dealing with her grief was to dismiss it airily in a cloud of vagueness.

The 28 days of detention were nearly up, so the hospital had to present her to a Mental Health tribunal to assess whether she should be released or whether she should be further detained. Was she at risk to herself or to others? Was she able to look after herself? Did she have family or friends who could take care of her? Did she have enough money in her pocket to buy a train ticket back to Paris? Was she in a fit mental state to be allowed back on the streets of London without supervision? All these questions were asked with great kindness and humanity by the system, by the National Health Service, the police and the judiciary; in short by the bureaucracy that we have built up in Britain to take care of the poor, the destitute and the feeble-minded.

My involvement in Micheline’s London adventure came about as I took on an assignment as a Public Service Interpreter, engaged by the legal aid solicitors who had been appointed to represent her at the Mental Health Tribunal. As the solicitors do not speak French and Micheline does not speak much English, there is money available to pay for an interpreter. It was a bit less than £100 for the morning, which comes from the tax-payer, but the value added in terms of care and consideration and civilisation seems to me incommensurable. Arriving at the hospital at 8.30 am I met the external psychiatrist who had come to assess Micheline. It has to be a doctor who is not connected to the hospital in which the patient is detained. I interpreted her interview with Micheline. Then came the solicitor, a young English Nigerian woman, bright as a spark, articulate and committed. She went through the medical reports with Micheline, explained her rights to her and how the tribunal would be conducted. Accompanied by a nurse from her ward, we all went downstairs to the room used for the hearing. Also present were the hospital psychiatrist, the social worker and three member panel of the tribunal itself, all external independent people: the above-mentioned psychiatrist, a lay person and the judge, who chaired the hearing.

I interpreted for Micheline, both into and from French and left with her after she had spoken. She wished to speak first and not to stay and hear the outcome. I don’t know what decision was made; whether she is still in hospital or not.

The point of this post is simply to say that if we want this place in which we live to remain as civilised as it is, then we have to pay for it. I believe the best way is to pay for it out of public money. Tax-payers are getting value for money. Let’s not cut spending in public services, let’s raise enough taxes from the great wealth of this nation to pay for our fantastic public services. Amen!

2 Responses to In praise of public services

  1. Great post Mike! When the system works well, it works superbly as you describe here.

  2. swithunwells says:

    Thank you, dear Joanna!

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