International women’s day and the 1918 Act are important to mark but so much further to go

International Women’s Day passed last week, and it came shortly after the 100th anniversary of The Representation of the People Act 1918 which first gave votes to some women.

I, like many others, think that we still have so much further to go in creating a society, nationally and internationally, with genuine gender equality.  But the fact that many people are saying that, does not mean that it is not a point worth remaking.  In fact, quite the reverse.

The first thing to note about the 1918 Act, is that it was a milestone that was only possible by a change to the law, which came about through political campaigning.  Much of that campaigning, and the most powerful aspects of it, came from outside mainstream politics.  Naturally, given the lack of women in mainstream politics at that time. But, it was through political pressure created by that campaigning, and clear demands put forward within that campaign, and then legislative action, that change came about.

A century on, we have still got miles to go in nearly all facets of our national life to give girls and women the same opportunity, esteem and standing in society as boys and men.

I want to talk about three areas that I’ve had a fair bit of contact with.  The law, politics and sports.

In the law the situation is intolerable.  Only around 30% of our judges are female.  This is worse in the senior judiciary with only two women having ever sat in our Supreme Court or equivalent.  We have two sources of law in our country, Parliament and the courts that establish case law in our common-law system.  It’s clear: a majority male judiciary is going to develop judge-made law in a different way to a gender-balanced judiciary.

I have raised this with very senior members of both the Bar and the judiciary.  The response has been that the problems come during female legal careers which are impeded by the challenge of mixing work and family life.  Meaning there are fewer female judicial applicants.  I’m told, change won’t happen overnight and there are many initiatives to overcome these impediments which will bear fruit overtime.

This explanation is unacceptable.  Gender equality is an absolute must in the judiciary at every level.  Not in 20 or 30 years’ time, but now.  I would like a legislative intervention to make this happen within five years.  You cannot have equality before the law, without equality in the law.

We also need changes to working arrangements of lawyers so that there can be genuine equality of opportunity to progress in the law.  A conversation with a female QC with children was enlightening in this regard.  Her trade required her to act in many multi-week trials.  Court hearings run from 10am til 4pm, with voluminous preparation each night, morning, and weekend, with clients to see before and after days in court.  It’s clear, a family life in such circumstances is difficult.

If any regard was had to the equality impact on the profession, such trials would sit four days per week or with reduced hearing hours.  But in the tough world of the senior Bar, such proposals will struggle to gain support.  They certainly did when I floated them with the said QC.  But, such radical thinking is required if we are to provide a fair opportunity for people to develop legal careers whilst finding time for family and to look after their physical and mental health.

My views are very similar in relation to politics.  I speak from the vantage point of having passed through a demanding selection process to become a prospective parliamentary candidate of a party who has at its core the fight for equality and better working conditions.  It’s fair to say that there are several aspects of such selections that would, generally speaking, be much harder for women with childcare demands to engage with or get to the bottom of.  The key in this regard is for such process to be clearer and streamlined so that it is easier for people with family demands to advance themselves.

It’s also clear that Parliament’s arcane and archaic procedures need to be refined so that women (or for that matter men) with families can more easily engage.  The sitting hours into the late night, voting by parade through a lobby, and the pseudo-social-club atmosphere created through the free-flow of alcohol at Parliamentary bars, most all be consigned to the dustbin.  Innovations like job-share MPs, and electronic voting must seriously be considered.

And then to sport.  Much of our national story is defined by sport: male sport.  With football sucking up much of the oxygen in this regard.  Doubtless the situation has improved.  Jessica Ennis being one fantastic example.  But patriarchy is still a defining characteristic of this aspect of our national story.  Take for example our female hockey players who won gold in Rio but still struggle to obtain endorsements and financial opportunities over their male counterparts.

Rugby, a sport of interest to both me and my wife, is illustrative.  The BBC being very keen to trumpet their coverage of the women’s six nations championship this year.  A glossy trailer has been aired on all of their coverage of the men’s competition, with the transparently unambitious punchline telling the viewer that highlights are available at 11.20pm on a Sunday night.

The BBC had a very well-staffed stall at the Labour Party Conference this year.  I took the opportunity to ask one of the public relations men, why it was the Beeb pumped so much cash into men’s sport relative to women’s.  My point to him was: ITV do a fantastic job on their six nations games, what’s the point in spending so much of licence-fee payers’ money on sport that would reach the free-to-air viewer in any event.  And the same goes for Premier League football highlights: let Alan Shearer and Gary Lineker earn their millions at someone else’s expense.

The genuine public interest is in reshaping this part of our national story to a more gender-balanced position.  In other words: the Beeb should push women’s sport and aim for at least parity of investment across the genders.  The fact that the PR man found my proposal a bizarre affront to the BBC’s “duty to entertain” seemed indicative of a lack of internal or institutional thinking on the matter.

All of the above show the inertia and institutional legacy which has delayed progress so much.  Labour has done a lot to much improve the gender balance in Parliament through measures like its all-women shortlists which recognise that nice-words and intentions are not enough.  We must now take a similarly radical approach to recasting many other institutions in our country into ones that are properly reflective of the country we want to be.

As a footnote, there has been some mention over the last week of the idea of “mansplaining”.  I have to say that I find this phrase unhelpful.  It feels to me like it perpetuates a construction of society which is defined by gender.  Like “fake-news” and “virtue-signalling”, it seems to be a debating device to instantly dismiss someone’s point of view or standing in a debate.  I have to say that in my job and in politics I have learnt that both men and women are liable to tedious, patronising or facile explanations or comments.  And insofar as it is used as a device to dismiss interventions by men on gender issues, that is self-evidently harmful to constructive debate.  Please let me know if you think the above thoughts could be deemed “mansplaining”, but don’t expect me to agree.

 

Let’s get behind our Labour Police and Crime Commissioner’s call for more funds for policing for our area

(Please complete the survey of Leicestershire’s Labour PCC Lord Willy Bach here up until midday on the 18th January 2018. )

It’s clear that law and order across the Loughborough Constituency and across Leicestershire is suffering as a result of the Tories’ significant real terms cuts to police budgets.

Across England and Wales the number of police officers has gone down from 144,353 in 2009 to 122,859 in 2016.  Much of which time was on Theresa May’s watch as Home Secretary.

People in the area are feeling this and many have highlighted it to me as a key concern.

For example, Shepshed, a town of 14,000 people, no longer has a police patrol car, meaning anyone in need of urgent support faces a dangerous and disturbing wait for help.

Over the past 2 weeks I have spoken to several people concerned by the security of the area.

A Loughborough shopkeeper relayed a story of a thief caught red-handed by shop-owners who had to wait two hours for police attendance to arrest the individual they had detained.

And a very elderly gentleman told me how he was mugged whilst walking along a Loughborough street with his walking frame: he assured me that he was now taking taxis when previously he’d walked.

So the headline cuts are having real-life impacts on people and businesses.

It is little surprise that Labour’s call at the General election for 10,000 extra police officers was deemed to be sensible and needed.  Yet the Tories have offered no extra funding and Central Government’s real terms funding for police in the area continues to fall.

Instead they have provided the opportunity for Police and Crime Commissioners to raise some extra money from the Police Precept to the Council Tax.  That being proposed in Leicestershire is equivalent to £1 per month for a Band D household.  But it is, sadly, money that is very sorely needed.

The reality is that if we want to have more secure neighbourhoods, and Central Government will not fund our police, then this small increase locally is much needed.  I would urge you to support Lord Willy Bach, our Labour Police and Crime Commissioner by completing his consultation available here up until midday on the 18th January 2018.

Labour are providing hope in 2018, through a government in waiting with policies that most voters agree with

Jeremy’s new year’s message chimes with conversations I had with voters throughout 2017.

Everyone agrees that inequality is out of control and deeply damaging.

Most voters want to take back control of key national infrastructure which is being exploited to swell dividends and board pay packets.

Particularly in places like Loughborough, voters feel massively let down by the mainly London-based establishment.

And, the comprehensive policies in our 2017 manifesto represent natural conclusions to these concerns. Roll on 2018.

 

The real life stories that reveal the sickening injustices of modern Britain and the world

I need not say a lot about these videos as they speak for themselves.  One about the disgraceful inequality and poverty in our country (my mother currently reading the Ragged Trouser Philanthropist remarked on the similarity over 100 years later), and the other about the international refugee crisis that shames the developed world.

I put them up here because I found both very affecting (one today and the other some months ago).  Far more so than any conventional policy or political speech.  They both represent modern day realities that are a shameful indictment of the national and international status quo.

I will only add that I was fortunate to have Frank Field MP (from the first video) at my graduation from Liverpool University in 2006.  He remarked then on how important his constituency surgeries were to shaping what he did in Parliament: this is a powerful depiction of how.

 

 

 

My week in Loughborough, Labour and the law…

As I am running to be a representative of Labour in Loughborough and Parliament, I thought you may like to hear the sorts of things I am getting up to.

Monday

Was dinner with the Law Society President Joe Egan in my capacity as a member of our local Law Society’s Council.  In his initial remarks he mentioned the work of Lord Bach and the Fabian Society in their important Access to Justice Report.  I had been fortunate to attend the launch of that document at this year’s Labour Conference.  It is well thought through and comprehensive: it rightly calls for reinstatement of legal aid across a range of areas, a legal right to legal assistance, and its proposal for a Justice Commission to act as watchdog and advocate on matters of access to justice would be a very positive step.  As a high street lawyer from Bolton, Joe Egan was very aware of the issues that need addressing and receptive to the proposals.

There was also an exchange with Joe about the Law Society as an advocate for access to justice and the profession.  It is fair to say that both the Law Society and the Bar Council are still in transition from regulators to representative bodies.  Brilliant work is done by both (not least the Bar Council’s Brexit Papers), but neither seems to have transformed into household names (as visible and powerful as say Digby Jones once was at the CBI or Len McClusky is at Unite) that can persistently campaign for access to justice and the right to a lawyer.

Tuesday

Took me to Thompsons Solicitors in Sheffield.  I spent the day up there working on their personal injury matters, some for trade union members.  I really enjoy my visits there.  The receptionists are always so nice to me, and I always get a kick out of the wall decoration.  Plates from local miners’ unions (pictured here) got special attention this time.

Wednesday

I was lucky enough to spend some time with Labour members in Loughborough, some planned and some serendipitous.

Firstly, I heard worrying concerns about the Glenfield Children’s Heart Unit which is under threat, and the fairness of Universal Credit, which contrary to its advertised intention is not incentivising people to go back to work (see this from Paul Lewis on an 83% marginal loss to some).

Then later I took myself along to the “Eco-Social” which brought together environmentally thinking people in Loughborough.  I heard a lot about Transition Loughborough, and really got a sense of a community of very able, idealistic people that were not just talking about environmental and sustainability, but were living it.  I was really inspired.  I used to work on climate change policy and drive an electric car.  If selected I would love to get immersed in the work of this community.  I happened upon a number of Labour members there too.  Making me think that the party where it currently is, is very well placed to push for a rapid shift towards better air quality, and more sustainable cities, towns and villages.  It’s an area that I think needs a big focus before the next general election.

Thursday

Won my trial in Wandsworth.  As an illustration of how the Bar works, I was against a colleague from my Chambers.  We are based in Nottingham, but are probably the leading chambers in the area of industrial disease, so bumping into each other at far flung courts is normal. My client had been deafened by his employer, a well-known national butchers, whilst working on band-saws and the like cutting meat.  I was glad that we got a result for him.

Sadly the trial ran late meaning I was not able to get to my Coop Party branch meeting.

Friday

A fantastic day doing the rounds in Loughborough.  After a Cino’s Cappucino with a hard-working member/activist talking campaigning, my day took me all over the constituency.

It was great to learn about the work of the Loughborough Town of Sanctuary.  Volunteers stand outside the Home Officer Immigration Reporting Centre which serves much of the East Midlands.  They provide details of where advice can be obtained, and were offering hats, scarves and vouchers for hot drinks and food.  It was obvious that these offerings and simply their presence, warmth and humanity were incredibly well received by those having to report at the centre.

We walked with one asylum seeker to John Storer House, itself a brilliant community asset. I had a fascinating conversation over my poached eggs on toast in the community café, with the person in charge of the organisation.  Her passion and professionalism was admirable. It was great to learn about the funding model, and how this has had to adapt to changes such as budget holding.  Hearing about their work using gardening with disadvantaged groups brought back memories of how much my dad enjoyed his involvement in a couple of such initiatives when he was in the early stages of dementia.

Later on, I was interested to learn about the Loughborough Generator project which is seeking to build a creative community to support start-ups and companies from across the creative sector.   All really exciting stuff.

This was all rounded out by a helpful discussion with Dan from the Loughborough Labour Students on some campaigning ideas, a fascinating talk at Loughborough Labour’s Unity House with Lilian Greenwood about women in politics and her political story (including her gruelling Selection Campaign experience!), and then a Refugee Forum event back in my village (raised around £900!).

Saturday

A professional development session on ethics at Grays Inn.  It says something about my profession that you can dedicate three hours of training to discussing ethical questions and scenarios.

I feel lucky to be a member of a profession that takes this sort of thing seriously.  Balancing your duty to the Court and your client is really the essence of what being a barrister is all about.

We are really lucky that the Inns of Court are largely left to get on with this sort of stuff, and that barristers are largely trusted to uphold the standards required to further the rule of law.  I would really like the same empowerment to be given across all professions and areas of work.  Particularly in health and education.  Government reforms have too often alienated and not empowered professionals and employees.

Sunday

Family time and promoting our CLP’s 2017 December Draw on Facebook.

 

 

How we ended up with the Catalonia Crisis: the thoughts of a Spanish PSOE comrade

Massive thanks to my good friend, PSOE comrade and proud resident of Murcia, Mario Lopez, for allowing me to share his thoughts on this matter of critical importance to Europe, regionalism, democracy and the rule of law.   It really is worth a read! I think there are some important learnings for our own constitutional position which I plan to share on this blog at a later date.

To understand the current crisis one needs to go back to 2006 when the Zapatero government, having been unable, because of PP opposition, to open up a reform of the Spanish Constitution to deepen its federal structure, kick-started a process of reform of the regional constitutions instead. Catalonia was one of the regions that reformed hers. The Catalan reform was passed at the time by a vote in the regional parliament and a referendum. However, Rajoy, then leader of the opposition, began a campaign against the new Catalan constitution. He collected signatures against it, used anti-Catalan rhetoric and took the text to the Constitutional Court. The result was that the court ruled several of the new articles unconstitutional and the entire text got diluted. For many Catalans this was seen as an attempt by the rest of Spain to limit Catalan self-government and so began a questioning of whether Catalonia would be better off as an independent state. 

That sentiment has been growing steadily over the last decade because of many factors: the economic crisis, the corruption crisis and the fact that Rajoy (Catalan enemy no. 1) is now PM of Spain.

At the same time, the biggest Catalan nationalist party (CIU, now rebranded as PdeCat), which has ruled Catalonia for decades, suffered its own political crisis as its historical leader, Jordi Pujol, and many others have been jailed for widespread corruption. To avoid being overtaken electorally by other nationalist parties, the PdeCat began upping its independentist rhetoric. (Traditionally, the PdeCat has been a culturally nationalist, but politically federalist, party).

In the end, we have a convergence of a legitimate sentiment of affront among Catalans and a political class (both PdeCat and PP) fuelling nationalist sentiment on both sides in a populist manner for short-term electoral purposes. 

Arriving at the current crisis, the fundamental issue is that the Spanish Constitution doesn’t permit a referendum to break up Spain. Because Spanish and Catalan laws stem from the Constitution, both governments have the duty to uphold the law. The Catalan government hasn’t done so by calling for a referendum first and then by threatening to declare unilateral independence. The Spanish government has followed the law by trying to stop the referendum and now by using Article 155 (direct rule from Madrid) to remove the Catalan government, dissolve the regional parliament – so it can’t declare independence – and calling for fresh regional elections. But as we all know, in politics the law is not always enough. The Rajoy government massively overstepped the line by sending the police into Catalonia to stop the referendum. And equally, the Catalan government for all its talk of democracy, has prevented a genuine democratic debate in many instances, from its control of public Catalan media to the forcing through of unilateral laws in the Catalan parliament without proper legislative scrutiny by the non-independentist opposition.

How do we solve the crisis? In my view, the main problem is the current interlocutors on both sides, Rajoy and Puigdemont. They are both discredited by their actions. We need a genuine dialogue between both sides. One ray of hope, in my opinion, is that PSOE has managed to get Rajoy to agree to opening up a parliamentary commission on reviewing the Spanish Constitution. This is the perfect forum for all sides to sit down and agree on a new constitutional structure in which Catalan needs and concerns can be accommodated within Spain. The key question is whether a referendum for self-determination should be included. PSOE has said no, because the main goal should be to make Catalonia feel comfortable remaining within Spain, not to make arrangements for it to leave. I despise nationalism (both Spanish and Catalan, or any other for that matter) and I believe it is a morally superior position to want Spain to remain a single state (understanding Spain as a plural state, with many identities, languages and cultures living within it, as it should be reflected in the new Constitution) than breaking it up on the basis of cultural singularity and economic selfishness. We have had that kind of democratic referendum recently in Europe, Brexit, and look how that panned out!

In the eventuality that a reformed Constitution is voted on a referendum across Spain and in Catalonia was voted down, then I would agree that a referendum on self-determination would be necessary. But that would be a last resort option, we ought to be constructive, not destructive, in the first instance.

This is just my opinion. I am sure there are many factors I have left out that other people will think are more important and not everyone will agree with my preferred solution. But that tends to be the case with my political views most of the time anyways! 😉

55p per minute example of Government’s disregard for Universal Credit claimants

Although last week’s PMQs challenge over the “55p per minute” Universal Credit helpline is only a small part of the story of this policy’s rollout, it shows how this government is willing to treat those wholly or partly reliant on benefits: or alternatively, that group of “just about managing” people suffering the “burning injustices” that Theresa May loves to talk about.

The Government’s own cabinet Office guidelines suggest that freephone numbers “can be considered where a department provides a service to callers who are likely to be part of a vulnerable or low income group, particularly when the typical call duration is long and could result in substantial charges”.  I don’t need to spell out how this applies, nor how the most vulnerable would not have landlines and would be on the “pay as you go” mobile contracts that would attract the 55p per minute rate.

Even if this guidance had somehow been missed by Government, a report by Citizens’ Advice titled “Fixing Universal Credit” would not have been.  One of its recommendations was to “make the Universal Credit helpline free of charge, at least until the roll out is complete”.  What is notable about this report is: one, it was produced by the foremost body in this domain which has unparalleled primary evidence to draw on; and two, it was released at the start of July this year!  It would have been placed on minister’s desks, and ministers/officials will have met with Citizens’ Advice top brass to discuss its contents and recommendations.

So a conscious decision will have been made to ignore this recommendation and continue to place the cost-burden of the helpline on the shoulders of benefit claimants.  A cruel and unfair decision on any analysis.

It is the unwillingness to see matters from the claimants’ perspective which is most disturbing.  Very soon many areas will be reverting to a “full digital service” for new claimants of Universal Credit (i.e. anyone who would previously have claimed Income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance, Income-related Employment & Support Allowance, Income Support, Working Tax Credit, Child Tax Credit or Housing Benefit).

This means nearly all applicants will have to make an application online.  Loughborough will be subject to this system from March 2018.  It seems that any Government properly reflecting on this policy from a claimant’s perspective would anticipate the errors and injustices that will occur as a result of unequal web access/web literacy, lack of availability of accurate information (for example up-to-date rent levels), the changes in how rent will be paid to landlords, the switch to payment in arrears, difficulty some will have in accessing a Job-Centre Plus (e.g. those having to travel from outside Loughborough into town) and myriad other complications and errors.  A tidal wave of debt, rent arrears and evictions is foreseen.

Although Government claims to be addressing these risks, its approach in relation to the helpline clearly shows that this rollout is not being conducted with claimants’ best interests in mind.  If it was, then stories of serious anguish, like those in this recent Guardian article, could only lead to the Government stopping this rollout until its serious shortcomings are addressed.