Dames have issues
These pages range widely, from the dominant social issues of the day, like assisted dying, to more oblique problems, such as representation and misrepresentation in the media. Give us your views and tell us what you think needs airing.
Cheated by choice
There is much handwringing and uproar at the moment about energy companies and the poor deals they offer their loyal customers – who are legion: only about 16% of gas and electricity consumers currently switch providers. I don’t doubt that over-represented among the non-switchers are the over 50s, who look back fondly to the days of a single national or regional provider, when you paid your money and didn’t take your choice.
This is not the way it was meant to work. We were meant to have fierce competition among thrusting energy suppliers, stimulated by savvy consumers whose idea of a good time was to sit around dividing pounds by therms and spotting a bargain. Now comes news that Energy Secretary Greg Clark can’t be arsed to switch (even though it would be the most basic piece of PR for Tory energy policy for him to do so), admitting that it can be ‘quite a hassle’. He’s evidently got better things to do with his time, as have millions of other people, even if they aren’t cabinet ministers. What – when you could save £100 a year? Well, woop-de-doo. I suspect that most people who haven’t, objectively speaking, got better things to do, would be prepared to forgo £2 a week not to have to scrutinise bills (never an enlivening experience) and trawl price comparison websites. You would have to be on the breadline for the savings to be at all meaningful, and I’m guessing these are the very people who may lack the wherewithal to do this switching: the ones with no internet access.
Consumer choice makes sense when you are hunting for a top that doesn’t make you look either pregnant or moribund, or a muffin with exactly the right ratio of sponge to blueberries, but when it comes to utilities, hospitals, schools, etc., we have been sold a pup. I could never understand the logic of applying market economics to health care. You can choose your surgeon! You can choose your consultant! How? I don’t know any, and even if I did I’m not in a position to judge their medical competence. ‘That’s why we have data and league tables’, reply the siren voices. But they will only take you so far, giving you no idea of the ‘raw material’ (in terms of age, severity of condition, etc.) that these professionals were working with. I just want the staff at my nearest hospital to be good at their jobs.
League tables are supposed to enable parents to make informed choices about schools for their children, but what we have ended up with is a handful of sought-after schools, and a lot of disgruntled families. In 2016 fewer than 75% of applicants in Birmingham, Bradford, Liverpool and Slough received their first choice of school. League tables have distorted teaching to the point where it is geared towards interminable testing at the expense of creativity, discovery, and the more diffuse approach required by children who have a range of difficulties to overcome before learning can take place. It is a brave headteacher who will put the pursuit of league table points on the back burner to allow for the development of a more nurturing, holistic school environment, though a few such defiant souls exist.
As far as I am concerned, the panacea of choice is in effect the trope of governments that wash their hands of responsibility. Come back, Mr Therm, late of the Gas Board – all is forgiven.
We’ve had a bit of a year when it comes to women in sport. There’s been the Women’s Football World Cup, when England got a bronze and even outperformed Germany – and remind me when our men last achieved that? We’ve had Michelle Payne becoming the first woman to win the Melbourne Cup horse race…and some slightly less positive stories emerging.
Take Williams test driver Susie Wolff retiring from motorsport because she believes her chance of racing in F1 “just isn’t going to happen”. Not to mention former Chelsea club doctor Eva Carneiro being ordered off the pitch by the “Chosen One” for doing her job, i.e. tending to a player, and suing him and her former employer.
So it was with great interest that I trotted off to Lord’s Cricket Ground last weekend for the London Sports Writing Festival for a session entitled, yes, you’ve guessed it: Women In Sport. There were three panel members: Sport Magazine features editor Sarah Shephard; the Guardian and Observer’s Anna Kessel, and BBC cricket broadcaster Lizzie Ammon.
They led a debate which touched on two main topics: the coverage (or lack of it) of women’s sport in broadcast and printed media, and the hard time that women face if they want to get into sport journalism. It was Lizzie who was the most damning, claiming that “sports editors say that the talent is not out there”, when it patently is.
It seems that if women want to make it in this area, they will need rhinoceros hides and a bucketful of determination, because what is on offer, according to the panel, is the fact that “there might be tokenism but in the end it is a bit of a meritocracy.”
Fair dos, they said, maybe women won’t be employed as football pundits on Match of the Day, but there is no reason why they shouldn’t be commentators. Yet what happens? Think back to the match that Jacqui Oatley commented on for the show, and the outcry that followed. Or the hard time she got for her interview with Arsene Wenger (even though he’s said to have apologised after).
News editors, though, do face a difficult problem when it comes to coverage of women’s sport. For the panel had sympathy with those wanting to cover it in their papers or programmes, yet knowing that many of the sports which fall under this heading won’t attract or build readership – in the short term at least – in comparison with, say, lower division football or racing.
And in the end, it’s the bottom line that counts. As Lizzie said: “If you can bring in an idea on how to monetise your story, you will be gold dust.”
Yet maybe what women’s sport has to come to terms with is that a good story is a good story. If Payne makes history – that’s news. If Newton Investment Management chief executive Helena Morrissey has the foresight and the business sense to drive through a deal for the first Women’s Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge, sponsor it, and ensure media coverage, then it proves there is both an appetite and opportunities out there for women’s sport.
There’s not much point bemoaning the fact that the number of column inches devoted to an injured woman test cricketer is dwarfed by the amount that Stuart Broad accrues if he twists an ankle. That’s life. But what women’s sport can capitalise on is the effect that it can have on society in general, and women in particular, in terms of lifestyle, health and finance.
The stories may appear more on social media than on TV or in the press, but let’s just run with them. Because we know which media will have staying power.
There used to be a running joke that you could go into any school in France at a certain time and exactly the same lesson would be being taught to that particular year group, whether it was Perpignan, Paris or Parmentiers. It was called a national curriculum, and everyone knew where they stood.
Over here in Blighty, we all prided ourselves on the independence of the teaching profession. Teachers had autonomy, and chose how best to structure their classroom and methods. Since 2010, the teaching profession has been demoralised by the attacks by Michael Gove and teacher training has been fundamentally altered – there are now far fewer universities offering the PGCE graduate course to train teachers, and much more in-service training. This has been linked with a gradual liberalisation in the approach to how schools are run; it is now possible for schools to have teachers who are not qualified professionals. Sometimes it feels that the idea of training seems to have been ditched in favour of not bothering to train at all.
The story has moved on in recent years; we have all been watching as the government has increased the number of free schools and academies, but we have yet to see any evidence that this has improved the quality of education. Academies were introduced to support failing schools, but there is no incontrovertible proof that they have achieved this aim.
And now there has been a decree that all schools must become academies. Now I am no education expert, despite holding a degree in the subject, but I am aware that teachers are extremely unhappy about this. Another aspect of this recent decree is that the role of parent governor is to be abolished; governors will be selected from ‘suitable professionals’. I know many people who have volunteered their time to be parent governors, and they are all sure that this is a retrograde step.
So I became rather curious as to why the Chancellor’s recent budget included the announcement that all state schools in England were to become academies, whether they wished to or not. And the more I looked, the less I liked the reasoning behind it.
I discovered that we have an Academies Minister, who is responsible for all the academies in the UK. His name is Lord Nash. He has a chain of academies called Future Trust Academies, and his wife is the lead sponsor. He was appointed Parliament Under-Secretary for schools in 2013. He is not an MP or a civil servant, and was a venture capitalist before setting up Future in 2006. He owes his appointment to Michael Gove, the former Education Secretary, and at the time of his appointment he and his wife had donated £300,000 to the Conservatives.
Lord Nash is not alone. The fact is that since 2010 many schools have been handed over to academy chains led by men who have made significant donations to the Tory party, i.e. businessmen with proven right wing credentials. They are free to determine the curriculum content and orientation of our nation’s schools. The Government now wants to hand the running of our children’s schools to these sorts of people, effectively privatising the education system and giving it to a group of businessmen without local authority control or parent governors on the boards.
I for one am delighted that cross–party support is growing to block this latest move by the Government. And who better to give a non-partisan view on this than the teachers themselves. I urge you to read what the National Union of Teachers has to say on this here:
And do please see what this new Alliance has to say on the matter:
Finally, in February 2015 the Education Select Committee released a report on academy schools. The report concluded that “current evidence does not allow us to draw conclusions on whether academies in themselves are a positive force for change…Academisation is not always successful nor is it the only proven alternative for a struggling school”.
Bearing in mind this evidence from independent experts, questions need to be asked as to what exactly is the Government’s motive in this latest move.
Saffron Records – Women in the Music Industry
Damesnet has been talking to Saffron Records, a Bristol-based female youth record label that supports 16-24 year olds to gain access to the music industry through apprenticeships and artist development.
The first EP release under the Saffron label is being launched this autumn, both digitally and as an EP. The artist, China Bowls, has a series of gigs booked to promote the EP in the Bristol area. This is her singing ‘Only Love’: http://www.saffronrecords.co.uk/features/saffron-sessions/saffron-sessions-china-bowls-performs-only-love/
I spoke to Laura Lewis-Paul, Creative Director at Saffron, who has been working within the creative arts and youth sector over the past six years. She explains: “Working with young people creatively is something that is really exciting for me. Each year the need for creative employment and education for young people becomes more and more evident. Working with young people constantly inspires me, challenges me and enables me to continually question my values.
“Through setting up another youth record label – Temple Records in Bristol – it became very apparent to me that the young women wanting to get into the industry were lacking female representation and role models in the music industry. As a mixed gender group we attended gigs, field visits and world renowned recording studios – all of which had a very small percentage of women. I remember the point when it really clicked for me, and I asked the young women how they felt about potentially going into a very male dominant industry. This is when I made the decision that something really needed to change.”
Saffron’s vision is to give young women an alternative platform for education and employment by nurturing their creativity through musically focused apprenticeships. They aim to provide young female musicians with high quality mentoring and artist development with established artists.
The aim is to create a safe, supportive and transformative space for young women in which they can gather and inspire one another, provide their peers with encouragement and companionship to give them the confidence to access the music industry, in order to achieve the recognition they need to succeed.
The three strands of work
Apprenticeships that diversify the music industry’s workforce. The industry is made up mostly of people who have studied to a level 4 or above in courses such as NVQ or ABSRM, meaning that some of the marginalised groups do not get these opportunities, so Saffron is opening these entry level jobs out to a diverse group.
Artist development. Saffron offers artists industry-standard mentoring and masterclasses. Women can often be objectified and over-sexualised in the music industry, and this programme offers a platform to build their confidence, knowledge and skills to enter the industry.
The schools’ programme works with girls aged 11-18 and offers music production and DJ skills to female students to encourage them to explore tech-based music subjects. There are currently 10% of women performing in Electronic Dance Music (EDM) festivals, so Saffron is working in response to this.
In August three members of Saffron visited Palestine. Laura, signed artist China Bowls, and Saffron digital marketing apprentice Emma Morsi, set out to work with vulnerable communities in Palestine communities, to help demonstrate how music can help bring people together and empower them. It was, Laura says, a life-changing experience. They stayed in Arroub refugee camp in The West Bank for four days, offering whatever artistic support residents asked for to the local community. This included singing, painting murals and supporting the women cooking.
The camp itself has been running for over 40 years, and so has all the infrastructure of a town, despite the inhabitants holding onto refugee status. Laura explains that despite the presence of soldiers and guns everywhere, it was possible to forget one was in a war-torn land, probably due to the fact that the inhabitants were extremely friendly, hospitable and community-minded. They met many inhabitants of the camp who had spent their whole lives there, yet had managed to develop a philosophy of non-retaliation. Laura relates how Daoud Nassar who runs the Tent of Nations – http://www.tentofnations.org – said to her: “We refuse to be enemies”. As Laura says, “It was a highly inspirational visit and we are all aiming to bring that motto back into our own communities, particularly during these times of division and tension”.
Saffron can be found at: http://www.saffronrecords.co.uk/
One of the positive tales to emerge this summer is of barbers being trained to spot signs of depression in their customers and encourage them to open up. It’s not a new initiative, though. A trawl through the archives reveals that ‘World Suicide Awareness Day’ in September has prompted the recruitment of barbers from as far afield as Australia and Northern Ireland over the years to help spot vulnerable people who might be contemplating taking their own lives.
But it’s the back story which is slightly more chilling. Because while the number of male suicides in the UK (a massive 2,997 in 2015, although down from 3,020 in 2014) dwarfs those of women, the figures for the latter are on the rise: 831 female suicides in 2014, up to 902 a year later. And it’s a worrying trend.
An article by Natasha Hinde in The Huffington Post UK earlier this year quotes Professor Louis Appleby at the Centre of Mental Health and Safety, Manchester University. “The concern is that this possible rise may be driven by rising rates in young women and in middle-aged women over 50,” he is reported as saying. “If they are aged 50 and over, this would suggest women are joining men as being most vulnerable around middle age. If they are young women, it fits with a concern about suicidal behaviour and mental health in general in young people at the moment.”
It could be a sign of the times that both the young and middle-aged are feeling more despairing about the future. The work environment is less stable, the housing market too constrictive and the political situation…well, we won’t go there. So small wonder that anxiety is on the rise. But if barber shops are working together to help men, where are the initiatives to help women? A similar scheme in hairdressers probably wouldn’t have the same appeal. Can you imagine telling all to the person cutting your hair?
The late Spike Milligan was one of the first people in the public eye to raise awareness of depression, a fact I was reminded of when I stumbled on his gravestone outside Winchelsea Church with his well-known epitaph, “I told you I was ill”, engraved on it in gaelic. It prompted a discussion with some women friends who all had their own tales to tell. One recounted how she’d been asked by her daughter’s parents-in-law, visiting from overseas, to talk to her. The sub-text was, she’s suffering from post-natal depression, get her to snap out of it so that we can fly back home.
Another told how, in her late teens, she was dumped close to her wedding date by her fiancé, who got back together with a former girlfriend. At around the same time she accompanied her best friend, who was complaining of pains, to hospital only for her to die within the week. The combination drove her to a three-day crying fit in her bedroom, and for her father to have her committed to an asylum where she underwent ECT.
Hopefully, she wouldn’t face the same fate if it happened these days, but depression, anxiety and suicide are topics that we continue to pussyfoot around. Mental health care in the NHS is still strapped for cash, although for the first time in 25 years clear waiting times standards are being introduced. Sadly, it is often left to charities such as The Samaritans, Mind, Get Connected and HopeLine to pick up the slack.
I am reminded of the sign in many buses about ticket inspectors. “It’s easy to spot one because they look just like you.” Surely it’s no different with those who suffer from ‘black dog’, as Winston Churchill referred to his depression? It’s up to us to be aware.
A Tale of Two Retailers
We may be a nation of shopkeepers, but not all shopkeepers are equal, as last week’s revelations at the parliamentary committee hearings about the demise of BHS proved.
I can’t wait for this week’s instalment, when Sir Philip Green takes the floor, to see if he will say anything to dispel the notion that he is a caricature capitalist trashing the lives of the ‘little people’ as he oversees the fitting out of his third yacht. (What’s wrong with having one in the wash and one to wear?) I may be disappointed, though, because the latest news is that he is refusing to appear unless Frank Field is withdrawn from chairing the hearing.
His image in the press has been a combination of convivial party animal with arm candy and the Paul Whitehouse ‘I’m a little bit werrr, I’m a little bit weyyy’ character. I may be wrong, but I think it’s likely that some of the £285m in tax he has avoided by assigning ownership of Arcadia to his wife, who lives in über tax haven Monaco, could have gone towards the parties, the private jets to the Maldives, and the celebrity crooners. And then there’s the language. You’d think if you were that rich, you could afford to be gracious to those who are not as fortunate as you, even when they’re being a bit annoying, but apparently not. Journalists who questioned thin-skinned Sir Philip about Arcadia’s accounts evidently bruised his tender feelings, so he gave them a right bollocking.
Like all such moguls, Sir Philip is involved in a lot of charitable activities. He has given £100,000 to the Evening Standard’s Dispossessed Fund, and made a large donation to the Royal Marsden Hospital. But it seems a bit perverse to preside over a foundation (Kahn Trust, motto ‘Love One Another’) for ‘putting the smiles back on the faces of less privileged persons across the globe’ when you are busy wiping them off the faces of those who have been contributing to your wealth back home.
OK, you can argue that he has created a lot of jobs and wealth, but you can’t overlook the fact that an army of shop assistants, accountants, secretaries, IT support staff, facilities managers, designers, buyers, window dressers, and so on, have generated that wealth and now find their futures under threat. There are countless equally talented entrepreneurs out there who can run a successful retail chain without raiding the pension pot.
Entrepreneurs like John Timpson, for example, owner of the Timpsons shoe repair and key cutting business, and the Max Spielmann and Snappy Snaps photographic shops, among others. His company still has a final salary pension, holiday homes for workers, and gives staff the day off on their birthdays. Perhaps most impressively, the company offers jobs to ex-offenders – the most important, yet most elusive, step on the road to rehabilitation. Managers have discretion to undertake philanthropy at the local level, too: the Timpson’s in my local Tesco offers free dry cleaning of a suit or smart outfit for jobless people going for an interview.
There’s no denying the company’s wealth is not in the stratosphere, like Arcadia’s, but a growth in profits from £500,000 a year in 1987 to £12m in 2007 is all the more impressive when you know that the benefits are being shared around.
And John Timpson is the first to acknowledge that much of this generosity was initiated by his late wife Alex, who found time to champion staff welfare even as she raised their five children and fostered a further 90! Old school paternalistic one-nation Tory he may be, but I like a capitalist who has listened to his wife AND gives her the credit where it is undeniably due.
Now that the EU referendum date is fixed, and we know – as if we cared – which side of the fence BoJo will be on, surely it is time to switch the media focus onto some hard hitting realities about the price the more vulnerable members of our society are paying for the Chancellor’s obsession with austerity.
In 2010, the Coalition government set about the task of balancing the country’s books, faced with a huge deficit. This was caused by the cowboy/winner-takes-all attitude of the global banking sector which had resulted in the taxpayer bailing out the banks after the crash of 2008. Liam Byrne’s ill-timed note left at the Treasury gave the sharp-witted incoming new boys the perfect narrative to trash Labour’s record and justify the huge cuts to public services.
We were told that ‘we were all in it together’ and that the only way to rectify this was for everyone to accept the hard times ahead in the interest of future prosperity. There would be no gain without the pain; six years on, it is tragically clear as to who is feeling the pain and who has made the most gain.
The safety net for the poor and vulnerable that was a hallmark of our civilised society is being cut to ribbons, and the right to a decent, affordable home has been under attack from all sides under this and the previous administration. To highlight some of the more pernicious examples:
- The Bedroom Tax was one of the more high profile examples in the early years of the Chancellor’s social experiment. It is very difficult to accept it as reasonable and fair that a disabled person should be denied a small amount of additional space to house their essential equipment/carers who might need to stay overnight in their own home.
- The recent decision to instruct housing associations to allow their tenants the right to buy was presented as giving greater freedom and autonomy. At first sight this seems desirable, because surely as many people as possible should be given the chance to own their homes. Looking below the surface, there are some murkier elements – if housing associations are indeed forced to sell at well below market rates, it will be much harder for them to find the funds to build additional social housing, which everyone agrees is essential. The fact is that there are plenty of people who will simply never be able to afford to buy, which is why social housing was developed in the first place. Also, it is highly questionable for the government to force independent organisations to sell their assets; the older properties were built without any government funding, so how come the nanny state, so unpopular to the Conservatives, is allowed to step in here?
- We move on to the Chancellor’s latest decision that council house tenants earning more than £40,000 a year will now have to pay market rates. That sounds admirable, except that market rates are soaring, so that tenants could find in the future that they could no longer afford to live in the community where they have links with family, jobs and schools. The Chancellor’s rationale is that “we’re stopping hard working people funding the cost of council homes”. It has been pointed out that the costs of building and maintaining council owned properties over time is more than covered by the rents, but that does not work so well as a soundbite. And now we learn that lifetime security of tenure for council tenants may be abolished and replaced with 5 year leases.
Much noise was made when the Chancellor decided to lose weight under one of the currently fashionable diet programmes. I suppose complacency is one thing, but perhaps even he felt that looking both fat and complacent might not go down well in a society where thanks to his policies the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. I wonder if he has noted that the OECD has just advised its member countries to ease spending cuts and spend more on infrastructure projects.
As clear as mud
It didn’t take long for all the wonderful peace and relaxation generated by a week’s walking in the peace of a small island to get kicked rudely side by a news item. ‘Only one such item?’ I hear you exclaim. And yes, I have to agree that it is hard to retain one’s equanimity in the face of all that is going on out there.
So my particular angst was caused by the news that a whistleblower has highlighted the fact that a Scotland Yard intelligence unit, with the specific title of ‘Domestic Extremism Unit’, which has apparently monitored thousands of political campaigners, had improperly destroyed files kept on Lady Jenny Jones, a key member of the Green Party. According to the Metropolitan Police, the official reason for this was that the records were destroyed as part of a legitimate programme to improve its record keeping, whatever that is supposed to mean.
We are of course living in era I currently refer to as A.S. or after Snowden, as with all due respect, A.D. seems to have increasingly less relevance as time goes on. In the A.S. world where apparently we are all being constantly monitored, the news that a prominent left wing politician – and yes, I think Green probably does count as left wing – was under surveillance by the police is not at all surprising. It certainly counts as ‘crap’ in the words of the Prime Minister.
Now the process of monitoring sectors of the civilian population can probably be dated back to B.C. in one form of another. Ancient Rome used selected citizens to monitor Jews and Christians, Spain monitored non-Catholics during the Inquisition, and in England in the 1600s Catholics were kept under close observation. More recently, the Soviet Union and East Germany relied heavily on networks of informants to keep the populace under control. Thanks to Snowden we now know a great deal about surveillance in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
But in this instance we are not talking about citizen informants or government activity, but about the police keeping files on people with no criminal records. In 2014 Jones used the Data Protection Act to obtain information on how the police had kept a log of her political movements from 2001-2012. This included data on how she had spoken out on issues such as police violence and public spending cuts. When Jones, in an attempt to clarify exactly what was happening, had a meeting with representatives of the Unit, she was told that they could not confirm whether or not the files on her had been retained. Now, thanks to the whistleblower, we learn that they were destroyed. It should not be forgotten that the declared remit of the Unit is keeping track of campaigners who commit crimes to promote their political cause. Lady Jones has not been charged with any crimes.
The irony of all this is that throughout this period Lady Jones was a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority – the body responsible for supervising the work of the Met, until it was disbanded in 2012 and its activities transferred to the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime. So the scenario becomes even more Kafka-esque. If the person apparently empowered to monitor the police’s activities is being covertly monitored by the police themselves, who firstly refuse to acknowledge that they are doing so, then neither confirm nor deny whether the files are still in existence, and finally secretly get rid of them, where exactly is transparency in all this?
Scroll down to read about Education, PC, the BBC and democracy.
What price education?
Martin Lewis, the money guru, went off on one about student loans the other day. As someone deeply committed to educating the public about the difference between good debt (mortgage) and bad debt (store card), he finds it distressing when parents ask him whether they should take out a loan to fund their children’s tuition fees – why saddle yourself with a bad debt to pay for something that can be obtained through a good debt?
What he couldn’t emphasize enough was that the debt arising from a student loan has far more in common with a tax:
- repayments are deducted at source once you go over the earnings threshold;
- it doesn’t need to be repaid in total, or indeed at all if you never earn over that threshold; and
- it doesn’t affect your credit rating if it is still outstanding.
The common misunderstanding of the nature of student loans has two very negative impacts: people who could have benefited from university are put off going, and., conversely, those who are not put off are drawn into a rather cavalier relationship wit debt: ‘I already owe £27,000, so I might as well rack up another £3,000 on my credit card and make it a nice round £30,000.’
When the government rejected a graduate tax in favour of student loans as a way of funding universities, I assumed that it was because it wanted to be able to manipulate school leavers’ choice of course’ i.e. lending more to those who wanted to study STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects than they would to those who wanted to study Classics or Philosophy. But no, it wasn’t anything so devious. Much of it was political reluctance to introduce anything called a tax, and the fact that it would remove ‘the market-based element’ from higher education, which has seen universities competing with each other through all the usual trappings of the corporate world: naff mission statements, incentives of sometimes doubtful benefit and so on.
To be fair, there are a number of problems with a graduate tax, for example, what to do about students who work abroad after graduating (though surely this applies equally to those with a loan to repay), but these are surely not insurmountable?
Another drawback of a tax is that it would not provide an immediate and direct funding stream to universities. Since the only direct funding they receive from the government is for STEM subjects, humanities courses have to pay for themselves through fees – which is rather a hypocritical approach when you consider that the top places in government are all occupied by people not in possession of STEM degrees, who would not have had to pay for their History (George Osborne) or English (Michael Gove) courses.
Although Scotland and Wales might seem fee-free nirvanas, there are apparently severe problems of underfunding for universities and colleges, to the point where they have cut assistance to poorer students – the ultimate unintended consequence of retaining tuition free at the point of delivery. And now maintenance grants in England are to be scrapped. It is these that have enabled students from poorer backgrounds to go to university, despite the hike in tuition fees.
Add to this the fact that the Student Loan Company has been behaving like Wonga and that bits of outstanding student debt have been passed round like particularly toxic parcels, and it’s clear that the whole thing is a mess.
It’s time for a complete rethink, and for more transparency. Why not build social capital between universities and their communities by enabling students to cover their fees through contributions in the form of local voluntary work, with some of the savings created going direct to the universities? But pending a solution, the government needs to make the nature of the student loan far clearer and halt the segue from good debt to bad.
I ♥ PC
I had a rigorous and early training in political correctness in the late 70s/early 80s, thanks to Jacaranda Wiley educational publishers in Brisbane. As our textbooks were in use across Australia, we took great pains to show girls and women in non-stereotypical situations, and to have illustrations featuring children of all races and abilities. After all, Australia is not a country where the white majority can feel in any position to claim that ‘migrants come over here and take all our jobs.’
Not a week goes by without at least one story about political correctness making the news. Recently, we’ve had the debate about what we should call the desperate souls at Calais, and protests about Frankie Boyle appearing at an Irish comedy festival. Beneath this there is the continuing trickle of ‘political correctness gone mad’ stories, usually about councils coming up with a succession of supposedly daft rules. On a darker note, the lack of action on child sexual exploitation has been blamed on political correctness, though I would consider it only a contributory factor, alongside sexism, target culture and the sheer pressure of workloads.
But it’s not surprising that people think the whole enterprise has gone too far when, for example, plays seeking to explore such issues are banned in case they offend anyone. Conversely, the Alf Garnett dilemma is also a tricky one: how do you prevent a character intended to lampoon bigots being enthusiastically taken at face value by bigots themselves?
In terms of humour, I think there’s a simple rule of thumb: it’s OK to mock people for the things they can change, politics, religion, hypocrisy, greed. It’s not OK to mock them for the things they can’t change: disability, race, sexuality, age, appearance. And even if individuals don’t personally have any problem with being the butt of jokes (some may indeed be the source of them), there is a wider issue. One has only to look at the caricatures of Jews in Germany in the 1930s to realise that humour can be used to dehumanise, then demonise certain groups, making it easier to exclude and attack them.
I can’t help speculating that the prevalence of bullying those with disabilities, both online and offline, is in some way related to our increasing – and unconscious – internalisation of airbrushed images of perfection as the norm. In addition to his mockery of people with Down’s Syndrome, Boyle’s joke about Rebecca Adlington’s looks confirms this as a possibility.
This joke caused trouble for Boyle because he made it on the BBC. If you want to pay to go and see him and be subjected to his vicious brand of humour, go – just don’t adopt his approach to your fellow humans. But why should people with disabilities, old people, or any other disparaged minority who pay their licence fee get mocked on the medium they’re paying for? And this isn’t an argument for doing away with the licence fee, it’s an argument for a channel that caters for all, regardless of race, creed, etc., and doesn’t join in the jeering.
One final point: I’ve been mulling over this post for many months, during which the Charlie Hebdo murders have taken place and the debates that followed played out. By my own rule of thumb, it was fine for Charlie Hebdo to mock Islam, but since then reading a description of the experience of being born into a devout Muslim family and being subjected to an intensive religious education at an early age made me realise how inconceivable it would be to you that your faith was a matter of choice.
So where to draw the line? Well, I’m afraid I feel it’s worth the odd ill-advised incidence of overzealous censorship that itself engenders debate if it means we can continue to nurture and protect a society in which difference is respected, not disparaged.
One for all, and all for one: the BBC
Sometimes, when I look at the TV listings, I seem to hear a high-pitched whine. It’s Lord Reith, rotating in his grave at immense speed. Given his legendary prudishness, it’s doubtful that Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents, and in fact many of the storylines in East Enders reflect what he had in mind when he formulated the BBC’s purpose: to inform, educate and entertain.
Needless to say, I‘m deeply nostalgic about the BBC: I grew up on Muffin the Mule and Listen with Mother; I remember the BBC’s coverage of Winston Churchill’s funeral; and BBC dramas from a terrifying Jane Eyre when I was eight right up until The Missing have enthralled me. But I appreciate that you need more of a justification than this for the £3.7bn funding the BBC receives.
Isn’t there a contradiction, though, in the Culture and Media Secretary’s view that the public service broadcaster’s offer should be narrower and more targeted when the Government has been trying to sell itself as ‘one-nation’? Just as commercialisation of public transport and postal services has left those minorities who have the temerity not to live in densely-populated areas ill-served, a narrower and more targeted BBC would no longer address or represent many whom commercial broadcasters deem not economically interesting enough. If you rarely see yourself or your concerns articulated in a public space, how can you feel yourself anything but marginalised? At a time when Britain feels more fragmented than ever, surely it’s vital to have a public service broadcaster with an obligation to ensure that its output, taken in its totality, offers something for everyone.
The point about totality is important: those who detect a left-wing bias in the BBC – and admittedly it’s hard to find any right-wing comedians in the BBC’s line-up of regulars – need to be reminded that this is a broadcaster that broadcasts regular religious, nay, Christian programmes, and excels at presenting the minority group known as the Royal Family (as Jeremy Hardy once called them) in a positive light.
The Government also professes to be a party of aspiration. Yet only a public service broadcaster with the protean offer of the BBC provides the scope to nurture aspiration. It’s a bit like drugs: people might start dabbling in the soft stuff, like Strictly Come Dancing, but it’s a habit that could get out of control, and before you know it some of them will be deep into the hard stuff and tuning in to watch Alfred Perl playing Chopin études on BBC 4 (and this is precisely why cross-subsidy is so important).
Lastly, stable funding for a varied BBC output would spare us from the race to the lowest common denominator that seems to be a feature of commercial programming. Come Dine With Me started out as an entertaining programme featuring real people hosting a dinner party in a believable setting; now the cooking and the food are losing out to attention-seeking personalities, excruciating stunts, and a commentary that went right over the top some time ago.
If the licence fee no longer seems palatable, I think that of all the models proposed in the Green Paper the German model of a universal household levy has a lot to be said for it: most households and all devices are availing themselves of communications infrastructure so there is no reason why they shouldn’t pay for it.
It seems a small price to pay for the only broadcaster with the potential to take us from the cradle to the grave, whether we were born in Bradford or Belarus. And if the public is worried about executive payoffs and lavish entertaining, well, rather than peopling the Trust with the great and the good, accustomed to handsome salaries and gracious dinners, get in some ordinary people to provide a reality check.
To make your contribution to the debate click on the link below:
The limitations of democracy
Now that the dust has settled and we can ponder on whether we got what we wanted out of exercising our democratic rights, I think it’s time to ask whether democracy is all it’s cracked up to be, both in what it delivers and how it’s administered. (All the while bearing in mind the truth of the famous quote from Winston Churchill: ’Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried from time to time.)
The basic flaw with democracy is, of course, that a large number of people may not get what they want. This is spelt out in Barbara Kingsolver’s brilliant novel The Poisonwood Bible: ‘To the Congolese . . . it seems odd that if one man gets 50 votes and the other gets 49, the first one wins altogether, and the second plumb loses.’ For the Congolese, it follows that it is far better to have rule by a single wise elder whom all accept will act in the interest of the group.
In a populous and prosperous country such as the UK, with well-established institutions, for most the impact of not getting the government you voted for is somewhat diluted. This is no doubt why so many people say they don’t vote because it doesn’t change anything.
And even if it does, does it always change it for the better? Surely it’s time to recognise that there are areas of public policy that should not be subjected to the whims of politicians and prevailing ideologies. Social research has built up a body of knowledge about ‘what works’, and policy-making in areas such as law and order, and education should simply be based on evidence.
Education in fact suffers twice over, being at the mercy of partisan policy makers at both national and local level. There is a great deal to be said for a stable centralised education system that offers teaching and learning of a uniformly high quality to all children, rather than a postcode lottery in which councillors and governors without specific expertise hold sway. This must be why the French, with their passion for equality, are so attached to their system.
It’s worth noting that this more managerial approach to government is precisely what the Italians adopted when Mario Monti was invited to become Prime Minister and led a government of unelected technocrats to dig the country out of the financial hole Berlusconi had got it into.
The other flaw is that democracy costs. Most of the time it’s worth every penny, but I question the need for some of our expenditure on it. The House of Lords performs a valuable function: many peers take their duties very seriously, subjecting proposed legislation to detailed scrutiny, and rightly challenging and seeking amendments where they can see adverse consequences. But when I sat through several House of Lords debates, I was aghast at the number of peers who stood up and simply stated – there’s no other term for this – the bleedin’ obvious. Why is Parliamentary time being wasted on this? Worse still is the Government’s proposal to bring in legislation to curb rises in tax, National Insurance and VAT. This would be a completely pointless exercise as the Government could overturn it any time, yet they are prepared to devote Parliamentary time to it (not to mention adding to the burden of a dwindling band of civil servants who are already working till ten most nights).
In these times of austerity, do we really want to be paying overtime for men in tights to be roaming the corridors of the Palace of Westminster in the small hours, shuttling bits of paper between Lords and Commons during the ‘ping pong’ stage of such a nugatory Bill?
So, democracy: not a panacea for all ills; to be applied judiciously wherever there are no contraindications.
As part of the post-election analysis there were many column inches devoted to the influence of the media on voters’ intentions. It did not escape the notice of those of us with a left of centre persuasion that there were only two national newspapers that did not urge a Tory vote – the Guardian and Daily Mirror. There is an argument for saying that even the failure to persuade the media is Labour’s fault, but we all know the rich and powerful control most of the media in this country, so no surprise that these types simply screened out Labour’s message.
I do feel nevertheless that despite the blatant lies about Labour having caused the global banking crisis (and I take my hat off to the Tory PR machine for swinging that one), there were many other sources of information freely available to me so that I could make an informed decision as to how to vote.
But what if I lived somewhere where all the media sources were proclaiming one message and one message only? Where the existing government controlled all the media, which constantly confirmed that the status quo was the only possible and credible existing and future option; where many of the independent journalists had been murdered; where opposition leaders had either been bought off, or were under house arrest, or murdered, or were facing trumped up criminal charges? What if this country had managed to imprison or murder voices of dissent who had decided to wage their campaign from beyond the country’s borders?
What if I lived in Russia?
Nearly 20 years ago I had the privilege of initiating and organising a visit to the UK of the Chairman of the Supreme Court of Russia and a group of his top judges from across the country. They came for two weeks to study our legal system, the independence of the judiciary and the freedom of the courts. Perestroika means ‘rebuilding’, and at that dizzy time in the 1990s it felt as if an entire country was being rebuilt in the spirit of ‘glasnost’ or transparency. The judges were educated, enquiring people who were excited at the prospect of a court system where judgements were made through an analysis of the facts, rather than being handed to the presiding functionary who simply read them out.
Fast forward to today and the wave of Russian democracy has crashed on the shoreline, to be replaced by a regression to the country’s version of ‘business as usual’ – just substitute nationalism for communism. The vast majority of Russians approve wholeheartedly of the President’s actions. There is a manipulation of the populace being undertaken that is far more insidious than what went on in Soviet times. If you think I’m being a bit hysterical then try reading Peter Pomerantsev’s Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, published by Faber. He exposes the Russian political system, with an apparent democracy underscored by multiple parties, elections and a free press, as one where all parties are under the President’s control and the media groups are managed by their owners, who in turn obey the Kremlin. As for civil liberties and the rule of law, the judges’ visit might just as well have never happened.
What goes on in Russia continues to impact us here in the UK: the authorities ignored the requests from Alexander Livitnenko’s wife for an enquiry following his murder on British soil, at least until Russia seized Crimea, at which point for some reason it became legitimate to be seen to be pursuing the truth. Whether this was linked to the fact that the oil price had dropped and we were no longer in thrall to Russia’s oil supplies, or whether the UK had finally found some moral high ground to stand on is a moot point. There is also the fact that around GBP 360 billion have been withdrawn from the British banking system and returned to Russia. Perhaps this helped to initiate new investigations into the unexplained sudden death of a Russian out jogging hear his Surrey home.
So I welcome the fact that I live in what is still a democracy. Unfortunately, like many others I can only watch from the sidelines and wonder how things will play out with our friends in Eastern Europe.
If there was one topic which didn’t get the coverage it deserved during this election, it was transport. Sure, there was more than a passing reference to HS2, and the Tories announced a rail fare freeze, but the Airports Commission is only due to issue its findings post May 7. So that makes one topic the parties can put on the back burner.
But beneath the surface there are tensions rising over another issue, which has garnered even less coverage, but which will probably erupt over the next few years. I’m talking about the great divide between transport infrastructures for those in rural as opposed to urban areas.
According to the most up-to-date research, car ownership in the future will be the preserve of the elderly and the rich. That’s why manufacturers are investing so heavily in all those little things that will help make their lives easier: cruise control, help with parking, higher comfort. Post-millennials are not even thinking about car ownership.
In cities, that makes little difference. There are alternative to cars, public transport fills the gap, there are car clubs, car sharing schemes (oh Peter Kay, let me share with you), community transport clubs…the list goes on.
Let’s take a walk on the wild side, though, which is what sparked this piece. We visited a family who live in Shropshire. The parents share a car, which is necessary for work; their daughter – who is in further education – was facing a transport charge of £20 a day, and that’s if she could make the right connections, to her course of preference. She’s currently applying for another for which the fares might cost a bit less, around £15, but still steep for those counting their pennies.
For the sad truth is that successive government policies have decimated the transport options available to those who live outside major conurbations. The UK government paid £3.8bn to run the railways in 2013-14, some 5.7% less than the previous year, according to the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR), while rail passengers paid £8.2bn over the same period, up 3.5%. This, says the ORR, is for the most part due to more people travelling than fares going up.
Bus deregulation, meanwhile, has led to operators focusing on the more profitable routes and since this market is dominated by just five companies it is clear where the power lies. And it’s not with the people who use their services.
Car clubs are rarely an option for those in rural areas because the sums do not add up. In fact, recent price hikes have lost them fans even in towns. We will probably have to wait until more companies enter the fray, and more manufacturers launch their own offering, for better value for money from this area. Which leaves my niece with the option of saving up for her own car and all the added extras that go with it, begging rides off her parents, or car sharing schemes – which are few and far between in Ludlow.
And what do the good citizens of Britain do about this situation? Unless it affects us personally, we have a tendency to just shrug it off. We could, however, learn from our compatriots on the Continent. At a conference called Transportation for Future Generations, run by research company Northstar, we were given examples of citizens who’d influenced transport policy.
Ivo Cre, deputy director of POLIS, a European network for dialogue and cooperation on innovative urban transport issues between cities and regions, cited three case studies. In Antwerp, the regional government of Flanders had been trying to build a new highway that would close the ring road around the city. It had passed all statutory hurdles, despite the fact that it would intensify air pollution there, when architects, doctors, democracy activists and campaigners combined to promote an alternative. Called Ringland, and organised through social media, it won the day. In Turkey, meanwhile, he cited the urban renewal element of Resistanbul, while in France agricultural workers, truck drivers and business owners teamed up to scotch a new ‘eco-tax’ on freight lorries.
Continentals seem to get hotter under the collar about threats to their way of life, or what they see as an overbearing government. If we follow suit, these may be lessons that the next government dismisses at its own peril.
Eat s**t: 5,000 billion flies can’t be wrong
Three recent media scrums have raised the issue of whether popularity should obliterate all notions of ethics and morality, but without going beyond each of the individual cases to examine the general principle.
First let’s consider the furore about the 11-year-old boy who went to school dressed as the ‘hero’ of 50 Shades of Grey for World Book Day. His mother criticised the school for excluding her son from photos and defended his outfit by saying ‘It’s been plastered everywhere for the past couple of years’ and that it was his idea.
Quite aside from the inadvisability of going along with all your children’s ideas, was it really wise to, de facto, endorse as suitable for minors a book about sexual exploitation, no matter how popular? And even if you personally think that it’s OK, the very fact that the book is controversial must indicate that there might be parents at your child’s school who would disagree with you, and in this context that it would be preferable to opt for a more appropriate character?
The purpose of World Book Day is to encourage an interest in reading, and if Liam Scholes’s costume served to stimulate in his classmates (Year 7) a desire to read 50 Shades of Grey, then his headteacher was quite right to cite ‘safeguarding’ among her reasons for requiring him to modify his costume. Or was she? Because after all, as Liam explained, he went into school as Christian Grey ‘as a laugh, not anything else’.
Yup, it’s the old ‘for a laugh’ defence, a massive Trojan horse that enables an endless stream of discrimination and stereotyping to seep into public discourse under the guise of harmless bonhomie.
Who better to demonstrate this technique than Jeremy Clarkson? (And when the ‘harmless joke’ defence doesn’t work, he deploys injured innocence instead.) Those million plus people clamouring for his reinstatement point out that Top Gear brings in tens of million pounds for the BBC every year. Well, more fool the BBC for placing any financial reliance on a programme that peddles casual racism, neo-colonial arrogance and environmental irresponsibility. There is little point in the BBC spending £245m of licence payers’ money on the World Service to promote what we like to think are British values (fairness and tolerance, anyone?) if it then undermines them by presenting an image of us as boorish and xenophobic. But perhaps it doesn’t matter, because after all, it’s just a JOLLY GOOD LAUGH.
And a jolly good laugh is synonymous with ‘just a bit of fun’. Where have we heard this before? Feminists have had to put up with the ‘just a bit of fun’ excuse for decades now, and with depressing regularity in the arguments over Page 3. To object to it is a sure sign that you are sexually repressed and lacking a sense of humour. Look at the vilification Claire Short received.
Yas Necati, teenage feminist campaigner who picked up the baton in joining the ‘No More Page 3’ campaign, met the Sun’s editor David Dinsmore last year. She was unfazed by his argument that the Sun had 2.5 million readers compared with her campaign’s 200,000 signatories, responding ‘just because something is popular does not make it right.’
Let’s face it, bear-baiting and public hangings were once popular, but who would argue that they were right? Nothing should be so popular that we suspend our critical faculties.
It is often acknowledged that there is safety in numbers. This can apply to all sorts of issues where we want to feel common cause in our likes, dislikes, allegiances and concerns. It’s nice to know there are people out there who think like I do.
For example, in areas involving ethics or morality, knowing that we are part of a general consensus regarding, say, the prohibition of capital punishment, it is reassuring to know that our country’s legislation wholly supports us. Equally, I am relieved to be joined by my friends in regarding UKIP’s policies as extremely repugnant. On a frivolous note, I would hope to not stand alone if I held out against beehive hairstyles, although maybe Amy Winehouse was the exception that proves the rule.
So far so good. But when does allying yourself to a campaign, which is in general perceived as a demonstration of commitment, simply become a question of jumping on to a bandwagon? Most of us receive countless requests through email and social media to like/support/tweet on a variety of causes and issues, and depending on how much coffee we’ve drunk/other campaigns we’ve liked/charities we’ve supported this month, we might click in or just click out.
The kidnapping of the schoolgirls in Nigeria filled all sentient people with revulsion, but was the struggle to rescue them helped in any way by the First Lady of the USA hijacking the weekly Presidential address to talk about it? Surely we know that Michelle Obama, a mother of two daughters, would be vicariously agonising as to the girls’ fate? I will not even deign to comment on Cameron’s pathetic tweet on the subject.
Bandwagons are useful things in the appropriate context. The term was apparently coined by Phineas Barnum, the American circus owner, to describe the wagon that transported his circus from place to place. It would be lavishly decorated as the troupe arrived in town, with the aim of attracting as many people as possible to the show. Later on, politicians on the campaign trail started using bandwagons for similar reasons. I can recall the somewhat unfortunate spectacle of John Major on his soapbox during his 1992 election campaign – not exactly a bandwagon and I don’t remember the soapbox looking particularly decorative, but he did win after all.
The UKIP bandwagon is racing through the country. People seem to be flinging themselves on to it with gay abandon, but the image of lemmings comes to mind here. An elderly acquaintance of mine is French by nationality and has lived in the UK for at least 40 years. Her neighbours have recently hung a UKIP flag outside their house, and have told her that ‘she isn’t wanted here’.
Is this what Messrs Farage and co. have in mind?
A duty of candour
I was on a packed tube train last week and managing, along with all the other passengers, to be oblivious of everyone around me. I practiced no direct eye contact, trying not to breathe down necks or on faces, and ignoring the bodies crushing my own. We can be very efficient islands in a sea of bodies when we need to. The shuffling and sighing was suddenly ripped apart by a strident, angry voice asking passengers in the middle to move down. The anger was something nobody wanted to face and we felt embarrassed by such an outburst. More shuffling and finally the angry passenger got on and continued to berate the selfishness of her fellow travellers. She was quite right, there was enough room on the train to take more passengers, we just needed to stop thinking in our island mode.
This made me think of those who speak out and those who don’t. I have a friend who gets absolutely furious with bike riders who use the road system as though they were the only ones on it. His ire grows when he sees them travel the wrong way up one-way roads and ignore traffic lights. Such is his anger that he will chase after and even scream at them. He believes that this will make them learn not to repeat the action as it is DANGEROUS. I have a much more laid back attitude about life in general, and if somebody is stupid enough to behave badly, I believe they should face the consequences. Having said that though, I did once stand up at an all-staff meeting of my then employer and take on its CEO about nefarious deeds the company had been caught doing. At the time I did not consider myself brave, though my colleagues did, just angry because friends and family had believed me when I told them that the company was innocent – when all the time I was wrong, misled by the company’s PR.
I think I can understand whistleblowers better than the angry tube passenger, but actually it is only a matter of scale. Speaking out is an action that is largely aimed at improving a situation. There was an excellent article in The Guardian recently written by David Owen, the former civil servant at the Treasury, listing five tips for whistleblowers. The object is clearly to resolve a problem and not to aggrandise oneself or make a quick buck. The fact that many whistleblowers end up losing their jobs and suffer financially and emotionally for speaking out is something we should be ashamed of.
So having been embarrassed by the angry tube passenger and being guilty of extreme reluctance ever to make a fuss or make a noise , I am now grateful because it has made me think that if you start speaking out about trivial things it can build your courage to address bigger ones. My only plea is not to do so in an aggressive manner!
The Victim Question
The present focus on victims risks tearing the blindfold from the eyes of justice. There is no doubt that there was a lot wrong with the previous system, in that victims of crime were kept in the dark about the progress about cases, and as often as not they ended up coming face to face with the accused and their family at court.
And there is no denying that Victim Support performs a valuable function in keeping victims of crime informed about the progress of a case, ensuring that they get the services they need to cope with the aftermath of a crime, and preparing both victims and witnesses for the trial.
But I’m beginning to think that the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction, chiefly because of victim impact statements. A statement from someone who’s been burgled or assaulted is fine, but what I take issue with is the victim impact statement that comes from a murder victim’s family. No one doubts for a moment that they are devastated by their loss, and that their lives have been changed forever. But who speaks for those who leave no one behind?
The murder of an attractive female teenager already garners more column inches and outrage than that, say, of a vagrant, and the distraught victim impact statement of the teenager’s parents further amplifies the perception that some lives are worth more than others.
At least in the UK we don’t have the so-called ‘instrumental’ model of victim input adopted by the US, where it is accepted that the victim statement is made with the purpose of influencing the judge. But all too often people may not understand that their victim statement is not intended to have any effect on sentencing, as demonstrated by the row that blew up over the Parole Board chair who was overheard saying,’ I feel so sorry for these families. They make these statements thinking they are going to make a difference, but they make no difference at all. Someone should tell them.’
Meanwhile, outside the courtroom, it now seems to be de rigueur for the bereaved to make some statement about their loved one, to the point where failure to do so might open one up to accusations of not having loved them enough. What troubles me is the similarity between these statements: all these victims were kind, funny, full of life, high-achieving . . . Yet what is surely more important is that these victims were individuals. We don’t love our family and friends for their virtues and nor should we. Love should not be contingent on having these qualities. Rather, we love them for their flaws as well as their good points, and for a million more complex and intangible things — the way they laugh, drink their tea, answer their phone — that could never be communicated over the ether to a television news audience.
So, for the sake of judicial impartiality, fewer disappointments, and a less biased perception of victimisation, let’s have more clarity about the purpose of victim impact statements. I don’t hold out any great hopes for a halt in the arm’s race of not-so-personal statements to camera, though.