FERGUS FINLAY: My records reveal quite a few failed predictions and unfulfilled promises

MY WIFE made one of her occasional forays to IKEA in Belfast last week. Great value to be had up there, especially with the current rate of exchange, and the quality they produce for the price is quite remarkable.

Apart from the other stuff she bought, she arrived back with some flat-pack book cases, so I could finally get the tiny room referred to as my “office’ into some sort of shape.

Big mistake. I don’t mean the book cases — even I was able to follow the instructions with relative ease and get them assembled into a fine looking arrangement. No, the problem is with the phrase “sorting out your office”.

You know what that means, don’t you? It means finding stuff you haven’t seen for years. It means hours wading through old photographs, old reports, books I’d forgotten I had. I’ve always told people I disapprove of hoarding and that there’s no need to keep stuff that goes back to old God’s time. But in emptying an old bookcase I discovered I’m just as much a hoarder as anyone else.

Why do we keep the stuff? Photographs I can understand, of wonderful holidays when the kids were young and I even had hair on my head. There’s nothing quite like the pleasure, is there, in the memories that an old forgotten photo can bring back? Finding them, especially out of the blue, is almost like revisiting the scene.

But the ancient old books! I can’t remember now why I bought some of them, let alone why I’ve kept them all these years.

Hidden away at the back of the old bookcase, for example, was The World in 2030, a dusty old hardback written by the Earl of Birkenhead. Old Birkenhead was actually Fred Smith, a Tory politician of the old school, until he was made a viscount and then an earl in 1922. I have no idea why he felt the need to publish The World in 2030 in 1930 (but then I can’t imagine what possessed me to buy it at some jumble sale and keep it all these years).

It’s hilarious — and perhaps far-seeing in some ways. He predicts, for example, that by 2030 China will be en enormous economic power — to such an extent that Europe is forced to forget old enmities and unite into a federal state which will wage war on China with the support of America. Side-by-side with this prediction, however, he scoffs at the idea that India could ever become independent and guarantees that British rule there will endure, “as a modern example of a successful benevolent tyranny”. The airplane had been well developed by 1930 and Birkenhead is able to predict that commercial flight will be possible in the future. But only for distances no longer than 500 miles. So, alas, transatlantic flight will never be possible, unless, of course, they build landing stations in the middle of the Atlantic.

The only realistic solution for Birkenhead is the airship, and that’s what he predicts will be developed.

I hope he wasn’t too mortified when the biggest airship ever put into service across the Atlantic (and the last) went up in flames about seven years later.

It’s on the subject of women that Lord Birkenhead is funniest, however. “I do not believe,” he intones, “that statesmanship is either congenial or indeed possible to feminine genius”.

Although women might excel in the arts or even (possibly) in business, poor old Fred could never see the remotest possibility of a woman prime minister in Britain.

But you know the sad thing about keeping loads of old stuff? Sometimes it tells you just how little has changed.

I’ve always had a shelf full of books and reports about disability issues. Some of them are seminal, like the Commission on the Status of People with a Disability.

Some of them are almost curiosities now, full of language that has disappeared, and occasionally rather patronising attitudes towards “the mentally handicapped” or “the disabled”.

One report I opened with more than a little curiosity, however, was Needs and Abilities. I’d forgotten I still had it, although I can remember how significant it seemed when it was first published, all of 28 years ago.

It was the first attempt in a number of years to review the array of services for people with an intellectual disability and to make recommendations about all of them. For instance, it was the first policy document I remember that recommended we stop using the term “mental handicap” and that people with an intellectual disability themselves should be consulted as to what was the most appropriate terminology.

The report took what would nowadays be called a life-cycle approach. Its authors, who were all public servants, looked at the needs of young people, people of school age, people as they got to working age, and older. It also looked at the needs for families.

And it focused on the fact that at the time, there were estimated to be upwards of 1,000 people with an intellectual disability “in the care of the psychiatric service” — in other words, inappropriately living in surroundings that were totally non-therapeutic for them. At the time Needs and Abilities was published, the main concentration was on the number of additional places it recommended as a priority.

The authors of the report said their minimum requirement was the creation of 600 residential and 1,000 day places.

There was some shock in government circles at the cost of creating these places, which was estimated at about £23 million in capital costs and £28m in current costs.

That would be a lot less, of course, than the cost of an evoting system today, but it was considered enormous back in those days. Nevertheless, the political parties all said that Needs and Abilities had to be implemented.

BUT you know what? I don’t just keep old reports in my office — I have the more up-to-date stuff, too. Among them is the annual report of the National Intellectual Disability Database Committee 2007. There, on page 63, the following paragraph appears: “The data returned in 2007 indicates that 2,430 people will require major elements of service, either a full-time residential service or a day service, or both, in the five-year period 2008–’12, an increase of 58 since 2006.”

And still, after 15 years of fantastic wealth accumulation, 207 people live in psychiatric hospitals who shouldn’t be there. Many of those people were there in 1990, when Needs and Abilities was published. That’s more than a life sentence, and it remains a national scandal.

Keeping old books and reports does enable the tracking of who did what, who tried to deliver on the promises of the past and who ignored them. In the 18 years since Needs and Abilities was published, there have been some changes for the better.

But despite all our wealth, we’ve never managed to keep vulnerable people on the priority list for long enough to eliminate some of the scandals. And that’s as good a reason as any for keeping the books. After all, there are some things we should never forget.


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