Honeyball’s Weekly Round-Up

Labour Party

The Winter Olympics kicked off in Sochi this week, with Russian premier Vladimir Putin declaring them open at a majestic ceremony on Friday. The Games cost £30 billion, making them the most expensive in history, and a large part of Friday’s Opening Ceremony was designed to show how Russia has moved into the modern age.

Yet the country’s social conservativism, particularly when it comes to gay rights, continues to be a source of anger and controversy as the Winter Olympics begin in earnest. International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach used his address to the stadium in Sochi to celebrate The Games as an embrace of “human diversity and unity”, and UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon also condemned Russia’s record. Putin’s speech to the crowd was in the end notable for its brevity, although a section of the ceremony designed around the theme of traditional marriage was seen by some as a show of defiance.

In June of last year Russia’s government introduced laws limiting so-called “propaganda” about homosexuality – supposedly to “protect minors” from exposure – and they have persistently condoned anti-LGBT statements by public officials while banning and breaking up gay pride events. American firm AT&T, who are sponsoring the Winter Olympics, have condemned Russia’s human rights record, but other sponsors – including McDonalds, Visa and Coca-Cola – have thus far refused to follow suit. Michael Cashman MEP, my friend and colleague at the European Parliament and a lifetime campaigner on gay rights, took the radical step of cutting up his Visa card in Strasbourg last week, in protest at this. It was a bold step, showing the strength of his feeling on the issue, and was one which I fully support.

I wish all the UK’s athletes the very best of luck at the Winter Olympics. I hope we’ll see a wonderful competition and a fantastic spectacle, and that in the long term the event will serve to highlight the treatment LBGT people are still subjected to in Russia and elsewhere.

Meanwhile, yet another rainy week saw The Thames reach its highest level ever, putting at risk an unprecedented number of homes to the west of London and in Kent. COBRA met regularly throughout the week, and by Sunday the Environment Agency had 175 flood warnings in place across the UK, and the Ministry of Defence had drafted in military personnel to provide support for communities.

As the flooding continued some looked to make political capital out of the situation, with David Cameron suggesting on Friday that “the pause in dredging that took place in the late 90s” was to blame. Communities Secretary Eric Pickles criticised former Labour Minister and head of the Environment Agency Chris Smith, accusing them of lacking humanity and expertise. To give him a modicum of credit, Pickles refused to stoop as low as Ukip, who used the crisis as a means of attacking Britain’s International Aid commitments – “Charity begins at home,” as Nigel Farage put it – yet Pickles’ attack still rankles many trying to deal with the problem at the sharp end. In his response, written for The Guardian, Smith said, “I’ve never in my life seen the same sort of storm of background briefing, personal sniping and media frenzy getting in the way of decent people doing a valiant job trying to cope with unprecedented natural forces”.

With much of the flooding happening close to my own constituency in London, I wish the very best to the people who have been affected. I hope, as the weather gets worse this week, that those in charge start pulling together to help those who are suffering. Chris Smith was 100% right – this is not the time for playing politics.

Tory MEPs oppose LGBTI and Women’s rights (again)

Labour Party

A version of this piece was originally posted on LabourList last week. It was co-authored by myself and Michael Cashman MEP.

Tory MEPs showed their ugly side again last week – the anti-women, anti-choice, anti-LGBT dimension to the party which David Cameron tries so hard to shield from public view. They packed in behind UKIP to oppose a range of progressive measures on sexual and reproductive rights, health services and education, and the combating of sexual orientation and gender discrimination.

The measures were designed to provide adolescent-friendly sexual and reproductive health services which are in accordance with age, maturity and evolving capacities – and which do not discriminate on grounds of gender, marital status, disability, or sexual orientation. They underlined that sexual education should be non-discriminatory towards LGBTI persons, and stressed that sexuality education must fight against stereotypes and prejudices. In addition, the report said countries should facilitate safe and non-judgemental access to STI treatment, and should have effective inclusive health strategies for HIV prevention, removing laws that penalise and stigmatise those living with HIV.

The proposals also called for access to sexual and reproductive healthcare to be non-discriminatory and for women to have the right to choose the size and spacing of their family. They asked for sex education to “include the fight against stereotypes, prejudices and violence against women”, and to “shed light on and denounce discrimination on the grounds of gender and sexual orientation”. They called on national governments to ensure women who become pregnant as a result of rape can have unrestricted access to an abortion with full legal and health safeguards. Moreover, they stressed that coerced sterilisation and female genital mutilation represent breaches of human rights, and called on Member States to abolish any existing laws that allow such medieval practices.

These are measures which most sensible people can surely agree with. They protect women and LGBTI people, and focus on creating healthcare systems which safeguard the needs of young and in some cases vulnerable people in an effective and non-judgemental way.

So, following on from October’s shameful scenes – which saw the Tories siding with far right parties like the BNP – it was vital that  the draft Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights report went through successfully last week.

Yet thanks in part to Tory votes, it was not passed. Instead it was amended and blocked, with nearly 90 recommendations replaced by a watered down resolution. That Conservatives were among those responsible for this shows that the ‘nasty party’ is still alive and well.

At the moment approaches to birth control, contraception, family planning and sex education vary wildly across Europe. This means young LGBTI people and women in many parts of the EU are not given the information or the options necessary to make the best choices. We in the UK have one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in Europe – something which has a knock-on effect for our economy and for the wellbeing of our young people – so this is not an issue we can afford to treat lightly.

One need only look at Finland, where sex education and emergency contraception helped drastically reduce unwanted pregnancies, to see the value of giving women control over their bodies. The enlightened, liberal values which lie at the heart of the European Union are the same values which argue in favour of women being able to choose and of LGBTI people have the right to exist in a safe and open-minded world.

David Cameron’s MEPs are, yet again, failing to stand up to discrimination, and are instead reinforcing prejudice and patriarchy. As Edite Estrela, the author of the report pointed out, they have won the battle but not the war. In so doing they have put themselves on the wrong side of the LGBTI and women’s rights debate, and on the wrong side of history.