A Bill in Ill-Health

Labour Party

You may be interested to see this article which I wrote for Tribune magazine last week:

“Pause. Listen, and engage”. This was the hollow tone of the Prime Minister in April this year as he created the mother of all PR stunts, and announced he would put on hold the Health and Social Care Bill.

If this government is characterised by anything it has to be humiliation. Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, was forced into the chamber earlier this year to humiliatingly announce the unpopular bill had been put on hold. Deserted by colleagues with just the chief whip and one or two other figures sitting beside him showing support it was the first of many such occurrences.

If Lansley’s ‘pause, listen engage’ exercise, was embarrassing then Tory MP, Nadine Dorries’, attempt at introducing an amendment on abortion was positively mortifying.

Dorries is at the forefront of a controversial plan to limit advice given to pregnant women considering terminations.

And last Wednesday she threw the PM of piste with her question during PMQ’s when she asked him: “How is it that the Liberal Democrats, with fewer than nine per cent of MPs, seem to be running the Government?”

Somewhat perturbed he answered bashfully and announced Dorries was clearly ‘frustrated.’ Cue a chamber bursting of raucous laughter and a blushing Dorries left humiliated as the butt of the class joke.

Yet the true joke has to be on the government who just 24 hours before this had back peddled faster than the sailor Dame Ellen MacArthur could circumnavigate the globe.

Although No.10’s U-turn reflected that the argument put forward by Dorries was completely flawed, it also showed their flaky approach to their own legislation.

Further scrutiny, of her proposal caused it to collapse. Dorries had argued that organisations such as British Pregnancy Advisory Service [BPAS] and Marie Stopes should be stripped of their exclusive responsibility for counselling on the basis that they have a financial interest in advising women to have abortions.

Both groups are paid millions by the NHS to carry out terminations – and so to profit from the process as Dorries suggested is an ultimately flawed argument.

Both the BPAS and Marie Stopes are not-for-profit registered charities that have no financial stake in encouraging abortions. Had the government sought to investigate this further it almost certainly wouldn’t have supported this in the first place.

The back pedalling occurred amid a bonfire of opposition. The roaring fire, akin to the extravagant displays put on each year by the Lewes Borough Bonfire Society, threatened to further destabilise the already fragile Tory led coalition and its flawed plan.

As an art of how to do politics, this isn’t a good example. Above all else one must be bold and confident of introducing plans and especially so when it is this controversial.

You must invite key stakeholders on the journey with you ensuring you receive their support from the start. Instead the government had alienated the very people it needed support from the most.

If this bill is a barometer of the government’s rude health then the emergency bell should be ringing in everyone’s ears. This is a government characterised by uncertainty, ritual humiliation (and that’s of its own people), flaky support of its own legislation and much back peddling.

If we pause, listen and engage our ears enough we can just hear squeaks from Number 10; it’s the spokes turning on Cameron’s cycling machine as he pedals faster and faster to nowhere.

The Tories’ do not really believe in their plans to win back women

Labour Party

Last week an email was leaked that originated from number 10 that contained policy suggestions of how to win back the dwindling support from women.

The Tories’ cynical attitude towards female voters was outlined starkly in the document. Examples include a proposal to criminalise forced marriage because the “signal sent out by opting not to criminalise is a bad one” – not because forced marriage is a terrible abuse of human rights but because it looks bad that it is allowed it to happen.

Although the leaking of this document means that their sly tactics are exposed, I don’t think women would have bought the Tories’ newfound concern for them either way, because their attitude towards women has always been pretty transparent.

For instance, despite calling for fathers to be “more responsible” for their children, the coalition still proposed to charge single parents (overwhelmingly women) to access the Child Support Agency. It has now been revealed that nearly half of the parents who use the service would be unable to afford the fees…  The Tories have said no word about rethinking these plans.

In addition, despite promising to be the most “family-friendly” government ever, leaked documents emerged that suggested abolishing maternity rights as a means of aiding the economy. This shows that for all the rhetoric, the Tories have no problem making collateral damage of the women of the UK.

One of the issues that struck fear into the heart of many British women was the attempt by Nadine Dorries to restrict access to abortion. The right to abortion is one that women of this country fought long and hard for and prize dearly, whether or not they ever chose to use it. Cameron, however, didn’t even care enough about the issue to read Nadine’s proposals before offering his support. Only when the protestors appeared on his front door did he bother to actually read the small print – whereupon he made another (now characteristic) hasty U-turn.

Altogether it appears to me that the vast majority of the Tory front bench view the women of this country as inconvenient vote holders – a group that needs to be considered because of their power to lose them the next election but for whom they hold no real respect or understanding. Cameron’s own treatment of women in the house has on several occasions blatantly displayed his contempt for the other sex.

The Tories’ stumbling block in the next election might well be the women’s vote. Although they recognise that women constitute the main casualties of their policies and are planning to try and remedy the problem, their hearts just aren’t in it and almost certainly never will be.

Honeyball’s Weekly Round Up

Labour Party

Today I have given quiet reflection to all those brave people who lost their lives and their families who survived them in New York 10 years ago.

It’s not a time to ask questions or pass judgement, this can wait until tomorrow. Today is for remembering them and showing our respect.

I was disappointed to learn this week that UKIP continues to mock the EU with its xenophobic attitude. I suppose one shouldn’t be surprised by their attitude but when you are part of building and fostering something in which you believe in so strongly it never fails to make you angry.

On this occasion it was due to the UKIP inviting two prominent figures from European anti-immigration parties to address its annual conference.

The key note speaker was Timo Soini, the leader of the True Finns, a previously fringe nationalist party which scored a surprise success by coming third in the Finnish general election.

The Independent reported how the party (True Finns) have also described immigrants as “parasites on taxpayers’ money” and suggested ethnically Finnish women should study less and spend
more time having babies.

The other speaker at UKIP’s annual conference was the MEP Barry Madlener, of the Dutch Freedom Party. Its leader, I’m sure you’ll know if Geert Wilders. You can read more on this here.

It was quite a messy week for the Tories back in the UK and their social and health care bill. Much attention was rightly given to the debate of the abortion amendment, of which I have discussed my views widely on this blog.

Cameron had initially given his full support for the bill, before withdrawing it on the eve of the vote. When Nadine Dorries addressed this in the chamber during PMQs she was humiliated by her own leader who told his raucous audience ‘the member is clearly frustrated.’

He then proceeded to sit down without answering her question which asked if he’d stop giving greater support to his deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, rather than to what he truly believed in.

Humiliation, confusion, uncertainty- it’s abundantly clear that the Conservative led coalition doesn’t know which way to turn. You can read more on the very public humiliation of Dorries (in her own words) here.

The Independent struck a chord again this week. This time it was in reference to a report on the UKs housing crisis. Conditions, it said, are among the worst in Western Europe.

Slum housing, according to an alliance of housing experts, is a result of a lack of affordable, decent homes, cuts to local authority housing budgets and the Coalition Government’s benefit reforms which has created a “real hardship, misery and ill-health” for some of the country’s most vulnerable people.

As a result it is costing the nation an estimated £7bn a year the report found.  It’s shameful that we have failed are most vulnerable members of society. Led by the coalition government we have failed to help these people to help themselves- the current situation of cuts doesn’t just leave these people in hardship, but it makes them even more vulnerable at a time when they need our help the most.

You can read the full story here.

British MPs have followed common sense and voted down Nadine Dorries’ amendments

Labour Party

Although I’m back in Brussels I am following the progress of the debate on the Health and Social Care Bll going through the Commons.

In particular  I’ve followed Nadine Dorries, the Conservative MP’s, toxic attempts at forcing an amendment on abortion counselling.

I was delighted to learn that not only was Dorries’ amendment defeated but Labour MPs can credit themselves with their elequent opposition to the amendment.

In addition, Dorries managed to expose herself (over the course of 58 solid minutes) as misguided and out of touch.  There were some points I found particularly startiling which I have reproduced below from the Guardian’s Politics Live blog:

“Dorries is still speaking. But MPs are getting restless. Frank Field, the Labour MP supporting her, rises to suggest that she would help her cause if she were to finish now.

But Dorries is still going on. She says she wants to see David Cameron about this. He was supportive, she says. He urged her to include the word “independent” in her amendment.

She says Evan Harris, the former Lib Dem MP, put pressure on Nick Clegg to oppose the amendment. She accuses Harris of “blackmailing” the prime minister. The health bill is being “held to ransom” by a former Lib Dem MP, she says.

Martin Horwood, a Lib Dem MP, makes a point of order. He asks if Dorries is allowed to accuse a former MP of blackmail. John Bercow says Dorries’s comment was not against the rule.

Dorries says the polls suggest 78% of people support her amendment. Among Lib Dem voters, support is particularly high. That might be because the Lib Dems support choice. And it might be why Harris is a “former Lib Dem MP”.

Dorries says all MPs will be answerable for the way they vote.”

Dorries’ assertion that 78% of people support her amendment cannot be taken seriously, there is not a poll I can find that suggests there is anything like this level of support.

Indeed a poll comissioned a earlier in the week by IPSOS Mori on behalf of BPAS (The British Pregnancy Advisory Service) revealed that 80% of the British public thought the government had no duty to encourage a reduction in the number of abortions and only 37% thought that women didn’t think hard enough before having an abortion.

It revealed the British public believe the decision to have an abortion is fundamentally a private matter, to be reached by the woman alone and that they’re making their own decisions pretty well at the moment.

Abortion advice and pro-life groups – a bad fit?

Labour Party

I was asked by Public Service Europe to write an article regarding my concerns over the amendment Nadine Dorries planned to table to the Health and Social Care Bill which has now been published online. You can read it at Public Service Europe by clicking here, but I have reproduced it in its entirety below:

Abortion advice and pro-life groups – a bad fit?

At first sight, amendments to the UK Health and Social Care Bill put forward by Nadine Dorries MP appears innocuous. Who could dispute that the decision to seek an abortion can be a fraught and difficult one, and that women should have access to high-quality counselling services – if they feel that they need to discuss their options? Unfortunately, the suggestion that government should provide “independent information, advice and counselling services for women requesting termination of pregnancy” is, in fact, far from harmless. It is an attempt to fundamentally alter the delivery of counselling services, holding profound implications for women’s reproductive rights.

At the core of the proposal is the notion that those delivering abortions cannot be trusted to deliver impartial advice, that the staff of not-for-profit organisations like Marie Stopes and BPAS centres are too deeply compromised by cold, hard financial imperatives to offer the support women need. The solution to this, we are told, is to open the service up to a miscellany of “independent” organisations. Under this model, deeply-held anti-abortion beliefs would present no obstacle to bidders seeking state contracts. The likes of Care Confidential, found to have distributed leaflets containing deeply misleading and condemning statements on abortion, would be free to participate in the delivery of state healthcare.

A less obvious, but equally dangerous, aspect of the amendment is the notion that pregnant women are vulnerable and necessarily in need of external advice. Of course, women must have the opportunity to talk through their options – but to compel them to do so is to imply that women are incapable of independently making an informed and rational decision; and that thousands of women are simply drifting unthinkingly into abortion clinics, dimly unaware of the alternatives. This is aside from the fact that this process is likely to delay the procedure.

To me, this seems to be very obvious encroachment upon the now established principle that a woman’s body is her own and that decisions affecting a woman’s body are hers alone.  What is being put forward here is an essentially pernicious proposal, veiled in the liberal language of rights and choice – but framed with the moralistic goal of dramatically reducing abortion rates at its core. If adopted, the bill will strip state-support from current providers, with their wealth of experience acquired from decades of contact with women, and risk placing money in the hands of avowedly pro-life organisations.

Ultimately, this would constrain women’s access to quality and impartial advice. Already, much damage has been done. Dorries has tarnished service providers and circulated damaging accusations about the nature of abortion procedures in her efforts to bolster support for the motion. If women’s reproductive rights are to endure we must stop this amendment in its tracks.

Women’s fertility rights to be set back 20 years if Nadine Dorries’ proposals go ahead.

Labour Party

After a lovely, if slightly grey, summer break in the UK I am now back to work. First on the agenda is a visit for the entire Culture Committee to the Olympic and Cultural Olympiad sites which will give us British MEPS the chance to show off the cultural delights of London. In addition, I myself will get the opportunity to see how work is progressing towards the Olympics for 2012 – all very exciting.

However, what would otherwise have been a very enjoyable week has been overshadowed by the incredibly worrying news that ministers are set to back Nadine Dorries’ plans to force women seeking a termination to undergo compulsary counselling provided by organisations that do not themselves provide abortion. This will mean that women will experience greater delays in accessing abortions which may lead some to have to undergo more complicated procedures. What is even more concerning however is that this is a policy expressly designed to curtail the number of abortions that happen in the UK and which has been lobbyed for by pro-life religious organisations who will no doubt be on hand to offer counselling services themselves if the policy is implemented. This can leave us in little doubt as to the nature of the counselling that women may now be forced to undergo.

I have outlined my concerns in a letter to the Guardian published today and can only hope that our government sees sense before it is too late and women in the UK lose some of the rights that they have had to fight so hard for over the years – the right to access abortions and the right to free and unbiased medical advice.

The Tory Right denies Choice to Pregnant Women

Labour Party

I read in the Telegraph earlier this week that private clinics which carry out abortions will be allowed to advertise on television and radio for the first time. I was not surprised to learn that this news has been met with outrage from anti-abortion groups such as Life and the more dogmatic elements of the Conservative Party. As usual, their arguments range from the factually incorrect to those of gymnastic leaps of logic.

Joanna Hill from Life described the proposals as utterly unacceptable because it meant that abortions would be advertised as if they were cars or soap powder. The problem is that no abortion provider advertises their product in such a way. The Marie Stopes advert that caused so much outrage last year didn’t even mention the word abortion or suggest it. It simply said “If you are late, you could be pregnant and Marie Stopes could help you”. It accurately represented that Marie Stopes aims to provide a range of options to women who are undergoing an unexpected pregnancy.

Life also argued that the new rules would allow “money-grabbing abortion providers” to abuse vulnerable women. Firstly, the overwhelming majority of abortion providers such as Marie Stopes and BPAS are charities, run not-for-profit. Secondly, abortion is available on the NHS and that is where the most vulnerable women, such as teenagers who are unlikely to be able to pay for an abortion, are likely to go. Thirdly, the reason many women chose to pay for a private abortion rather than use the NHS is because they believe that such organisations provide a higher quality of care and counselling.

This issue highlights the hypocrisy of the right-wing Tories’ current stance on abortion. Nadine Dorries has demanded that women be forced to undergo compulsory counselling by an organisation that doesn’t itself provide abortion services before being allowed to undergo the procedure. This will actually delay treatment for women but she has justified these proposals on the grounds that women should have the choice to abort but need to have “as much information as possible”. Why then has she denounced these new proposals which are fundamentally about providing women with information about their options? The only possible reason is that Dorries and groups such as Life only want pregnant women to have certain kinds of information, the information and advice that fit in with their own agenda.

Anti-abortion campaigners are blinded by their dogma and prejudice into thinking that those involved in abortions are immoral people who either have no respect for human life or even get pleasure from the taking of it. This is totally and utterly wrong. Those who work for organisations like Marie Stopes are, I believe, motivated primarily by compassion, just like those who work in all other forms of healthcare.

Such organisations are also not simply about providing abortions. Marie Stopes, BPAS and similar bodies  provide a range of fertility, sexual health and counselling services. The mission statement of Marie Stopes sums up their role perfectly; “Children by choice, not by chance” and that includes helping women to have children as well as not to have them. Right wing Tories and the dogmatic elements of our society are trying to prevent women from being able to make that choice for themselves.

Bring Back Feminism

Labour Party

 Two stories in the news today, both in the Guardian, caught my eye. The first was the news that pro-choice groups are now retaliating against the gains made by anti-abortion campaigners. The second was an excellent piece by Jackie Ashley on the debate over the sexualisation of young girls.

Recent developments in the political minefield of abortion rights have been, I believe, deeply concerning. Not only are anti-abortion groups such as Life being invited to have their say on government policy but there are proposals being made within the Conservative Party to both limit the time frame within which a woman may have an abortion and also to force women to undergo counselling should they chose to seek one.

Why are these proposals so appalling? Well, in terms of the reduction of time limits, the number of abortions that are undertaken in the later weeks is actually a miniscule proportion of all abortions carried out. Undergoing a late-term abortion is a horrendous experience that no woman would take lightly and would only be done in the most extreme circumstances. The women who choose to have late-term abortions are often the most vulnerable, women who have been abused or who are unaware of their pregnancy, have very controlling families or find out their child has a severe disability.

I also oppose plans to force women who wish to have a termination to undergo counselling. This is not to say that I think counselling in itself a bad thing. Indeed, if a woman wishes to have counselling for what can be a traumatising experience it should absolutely be provided. But forcing a woman to undergo counselling simply sends out the message that this decision is not hers alone, society has a say, and society disapproves.

Surprisingly, on the subject of the sexualisation of young girls the Conservative Right and Feminist Left find themselves in uneasy agreement, albeit for divergent reasons. The Right, headed by the likes of Nadine Dorries, oppose the sexualisation of young girls because they believe sex to be nasty and dirty and the sexualisation of young girls to be something nasty and dirty happening to children.

Many of us on the Left, however, oppose the selling of padded bras for seven year olds and make up and stilettos as toys for different reasons. This is because, as Jackie Ashley says, these girls “are being groomed – not by pervy old men hanging over computer keyboards, but by today’s ideology-free, value-free consumer culture, which tells them they’re sexually hot or they’re nothing”. The sexualisation and commodification of women is a false empowerment. What kind of freedom is the freedom to take your clothes off or get silicone enhanced breasts? Men don’t feel obliged to undergo cosmetic surgery and grueling beauty routines in order to look “acceptable” within society. Women need to realise that they have simply swapped one form of slavery and societal control for another.

Although the Left and Right agree that there should be something done, it is still for fundamentally different reasons. This is why the Left should not simply sit back and let the religious Right fight this battle. A feminist voice should be heard. This is not only because a lot of the other things these groups have to say about women, such as abortion rights, is poisonous and regressive, but because you can’t change society just by banning things. In order to enact real and lasting change you need to address the way both men and women think about these issues.

Anne Milton is becoming the new Nadine Dorries

Labour Party

I was shocked by the news that Health Minister Anne Milton has chosen to invite the  anti-abortion group Life on to the government’s new sexual health forum. Meanwhile, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), a respected organisation with years of valuable experience in this field, has not been given a place. Life, a Christian organisation dedicated to campaigning for a ban on abortions, has criticised groups such as Brook, also on the forum, for distributing information on contraception to teenagers and advocates an abstinence-based approach to sexual education.  

The Government justifies the inclusion of Life by maintaining there should be a variety of views present at the discussion. However, given that the committee is committed to improving sexual health, I am unsure of how informed Life’s contribution can be since they actually provide no sexual health services. 

Aside from the fact that I profoundly disagree with the aims and values of Life, what is even more astonishing is that our supposedly ‘pragmatic’ government has chosen to seek the advice of such a group despite all the evidence that shows their policies (abstinence based education) actually have a detrimental effect on the sexual health of society. 

Indeed, countries which adopt abstinence based approaches have higher rates of sexually transmitted disease and unwanted pregnancy. For example, the rate for chlamydia in the United States, where abstinence education is sometimes the only method provided and use of contraception is often shunned as encouraging promiscuity, was 367.5 out of 100,000 in 2007 (up to 409.2 in 2009). This is compared to 174 in theNetherlands where the government combines easy access to contraception with a comprehensive, honest and liberal sex education curriculum. The 2007 rates for theUK lay somewhere in between at 204.7 for men and 198.1 for women but are rapidly increasing.

Presuming that the leadership of the Tory party are not totally unaware of the relationship between public sexual health policy and the effects on the ground, I can only presume that they are putting minority interests and religious sentiment above the health and wellbeing of our young people. Endangering the health and maybe even lives of our younger generation in this way cannot be tolerated.

The decision to remove the BPAS and include Life on the sexual health forum highlights a real split in the Conservative Party. It is beginning to look like the overtly right-wing factions, represented in this case by Nadine Dorries and her ilk, are gaining ground. Despite its polished, politically correct veneer, there are still many elements in the Tory Party who remain entrenched in the intolerant patriarchal conservatism of yesteryear.  Any person who is proud of the secular, tolerant and multicultural Britain we inhabit today has cause to fear for exactly what kind of “big society” many of the Tories have in mind, and just how far the leadership is prepared to go to appease them.