Wednesday, 6 October 2010

On the 100th anniversary of Barbara Castle's birth, what would she make of the Tories on Equal Pay transparency and Child Benefit cuts?

100 years ago today, one of the most successful and well known Labour woman politicians - Barbara Castle was born. She was elected to Parliament as MP for Blackburn in 1945, a seat she held before it was taken over by Jack Straw MP, her special adviser. There's a great piece about her life by Radio 4's Anne Perkins here, but just a few thoughts of my own.
Barbara Castle was the "Harriet Harman" of her time, a woman who challenged the male lens through which political discussion and decision making was always done. Her Equal Pay Act, the struggle for which is being brought to a new generation through the outstanding film "Made in Dagenham", was ground-breaking in its challenge both to politicians and business on the accepted way of doing things. And like the Minimum Wage, despite the mountain of opposition, it quickly became accepted as a long overdue measure of fairness in our economic life.
The Equal Pay Act was one of the last bills to go through Parliament in 1970 before Labour lost power - an uncanny parallel to the passing of Harman's Equality Act just before the election this year, becoming an Act of Parliament on 8th April.
An important milestone 40 years on from the Equal Pay Act, the Equality Act included measures on information about equal pay. Despite progress, there is still a gender pay gap of approx 21% in the UK, worse than the EU average. The gap varies each year, but is in the ball park of 80% of men's pay. This was cleverly marked by Fawcett's Equal Pay Day on 30th October 2009 - when they presented a cheque to the Prime Minister to symbolise the last pay cheque that woman would get for the year.
It isn't rocket science to suggest that tackling the gender pay gap once and for all is going to require gender pay gap information. To put this inequality right you need to know where it is happening. The Equality Act included two new ideas to help make equal pay happen - voluntary pay reporting on differences in men and women’s pay for a company with 250 or more workers, and secondly for public bodies to publish information about equal pay (and how many workers it has who are disabled or people of different races). The Government planned to do this for public bodies with 150 or more workers.
The part of the Act which relates to this is Section 78, which creates a power for Ministers to require employers to publish information relating to the gender pay gap. However the new Tory led Government has already said this is not being commenced from 1st October; instead they are "considering how to approach this clause in the best way for business and others involved."
Theresa May in her Conference speech this week talked about Equal Pay in a list of wrongs and said that the Conservatives plan to "put things right". It is unclear to me how this will be done without pay gap information. A lot of HR data today is computerised - a pay reporting function should hardly be problematic in an age when we expect complex and accurate end of year financial reporting from organisations and solid in-year management accounting to ensure efficiency and productivity.
The real reason for avoiding pay gap information is not red tape - the data already exists and could easily be compiled - the real reason is that as soon as you make something transparent you will see greater demand to do something about it. And the political will to really do something about it is just not there.
But onto another issue. Child Benefit is another of Barbara Castle's legacies - it replaced the Family Allowance in her final years as an MP. She was instrumental in changing a mindset and moving family funds from the wallet to the purse and investing in children. If she were here, she would certainly have made her views known on the regressive steps this Government is now taking, which is much less about economics than it is about politics. The idea that you save a billion by taking money away from children, and "sweeten" the move by giving a billion back to married couples in the form of tax relief is one step short of Dickensian.
This is politics plain and simple - a symbolic step in support of a traditionalist Conservative view of political economy, by attacking a symbol of a social democratic tradition that is in fact one of the symbols of equality for children and families across social classes, as well as a vital contribution to family income and welfare of children. It may be a small contribution to Castle's legacy on the 100th anniversary of her birth is to highlight how the Tories are turning the clock back on progress, but one that I hope will encourage others to look beyond the smokescreen to the reality that lies behind the Tories' words.

Friday, 28 May 2010

starting over

I was as gutted as every other Labour supporter when the general election results came through. I'd worked hard with south thanet labour party for several months, phone canvassing and delivering leaflets. Our candidate lost his seat after 13 years a major disappointment in a key marginal area. Now it's time to regroup and reflect and commit to working hard in the local elections 2011 and thereafter. Labour can do it, we can get back in power. Believe.

starting over

I was as gutted as every other Labour supporter when the general election results came through. I'd worked hard with south thanet labour party for several months, phone canvassing and delivering leaflets. Our candidate lost his seat after 13 years a major disappointment in a key marginal area. Now it's time to regroup and reflect and commit to working hard in the local elections 2011 and thereafter. Labour can do it, we can get back in power. Believe.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

How did protecting rape defendants get onto the agenda?

Have you read the latest volume of the government’s coalition agreement? No? Perhaps you should, because there are things buried in it that were not in any manifesto, but that suddenly, and without debate, seem to have become government policy.

The agreement is 36 pages long, but you have to wade through to the 24th page to find – buried in the Justice section – the sentence which simply says:’ We will extend anonymity in rape cases to defendants’. 

Sorry? How did that get there, then? It can't have been in the original negotiations, because they seem to have been about manifesto promises, and this wasn't one. Yet there they are - nine little words promising a radical change to the justice system. Other issues are being kicked into the long grass - commissions and inquiries proliferate - but not this one. This one is worded with firm intent.
And if it is implemented, trials for rape will again become the only ones at which the defendant is afforded the same protection as the victim. I say ‘again’ because this is an idea which has been tried before – introduced by the Labour government in 1976, it was abolished by Thatcher’s Conservative government in 1988. 

When we retweeted someone’s comment on this earlier we got a response which said ‘This sort of idiotic rant is why Labour lost - the new law would only make the rights of Men and Women EQUAL !’ (his capitals). 
Equal? What equality is there in being raped, and then being treated as though there was a significant chance of you yourself being the criminal rather than your attacker? Rape is already a notoriously difficult crime to prosecute, and many go unreported because women often lack confidence in the system. 
And they’re right to do so. Only 6% of reported rapes result in a conviction, and there is evidence that we are increasingly drifting back to a situation in which women themselves are blamed if they are assaulted.  
Of course there are a very small number of women who lie about rape –  people lie about all sorts of things - but there are far more women who see their attackers walk free, or who simply never report the assault because they are afraid they will not be believed. To treat all women as though they are potential liars is offensive, and sends them a message to the effect that  if they're raped they're going to need to produce a much higher standard of evidence than is normally required in trials for, say, robbery or murder, and that if the prosecution fails it will be because they will be deemed to have lied.
There’s another point, too. This wasn’t at the top of anyone’s agenda during the election. It was agreed at a Lib Dem conference in 2006, but never got any further. So who got it into the agreement? Why did the Lib Dems (or, indeed, the Tories) think that a four-year old policy decision which has never been put to the electorate should be added to government policy? 

And would they have succeeded if any of the two negotiating teams had been women?
Nick Clegg says that the coalition agreement is based on ‘freedom, fairness and responsibility’. Clearly, women who have been raped are not included. This  measure is a retrograde step which has already been tried and found not to work, and which will penalise victims who are already distressed. It is wrong, and we hope that Harriet Harman (and the new Labour leader) will make a spirited fight against it as part of our confident and effective opposition.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

No matter what happens, Brighton will have a woman MP on May 7, says Jill Stevens

No matter which way you look at it, news is being made down here in ‘London on Sea’ and not just because Green hearts are aflutter at the thought that Brighton Pavilion could provide Westminster with its first ever Green MP. 

No, what makes the contest here historic before any votes are cast at all is the fact that for the first time ever we have four major contenders – Labour, Conservative, LiberalDemocrat and Green – and they are all women.This is the first time that all four parties have fielded a woman candidate in the same constituency.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Good Start, But Could Do Better

OK, so we've had the Chancellors' debate. It was interesting, but not a revelation. We discovered that Vince Cable is very good at being Vince Cable, that Alistair Darling is, as well as being a safe pair of hands, not without a sense of humour, and that George Osborne isn't quite up to the mark. No nasty surprises, then. No sudden dawning of the light.

In other words, we got what we expected, and, from the look of the papers this morning and Twitter last night, most people saw what they wanted to see. (Apart from some of the Tories, that is, who seem to think it wasn't fair that Osborne was 'ganged up on', but in their case the words 'heat' and 'kitchen' spring rather predictably to mind.)

Sunday, 28 February 2010