There is no need to reduce the time limit for abortion

Labour Party

Recently appointed Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s startling statement that the abortion time limit should be reduced to a mere 12 weeks should give us all pause for thought.

Hunt is the person at the very top, the man who will be charged, if the time ever comes, with any legislation on abortion.

I need hardly point out that halving the current time limit of 24 weeks to a mere 12 will virtually outlaw legal termination all together. We will return to the era of Mike Leigh’s acclaimed film Vera Drake when back street abortions were the only answer and women suffered and sometimes died.

I, and I believe most reasonable, compassionate people do not wish to return to the situation before the 1967 Abortion Act.

Abortion is of course undesirable. It is always difficult for those involved. Rarely do women choose to have a termination. When a woman decides to have an abortion she generally does so because the health of the unborn child or her own safety is at risk, she has been raped or her circumstances are so impossible that a child would be unlikely to thrive. We should, in addition, not forget that a termination has to be agreed by two doctors.

The NHS’s own website states that the majority of abortions (98%) are carried out before 20 weeks, 90% of which are performed before 13 weeks.  Information from the Office for National Statistics states: “For women in their twenties and early thirties the percentage of abortions has remained relatively stable and is now in decline.”

Despite many medical advances over the past thirty years, the evidence simply does not stack up that foetal viability has improved past 24 weeks.  Only a tiny number of abortions take place at this point in the gestation cycle, and it is nothing short of scandalous that a Secretary of State can demonstrate such disregard for facts, while also doing nothing to support women who undergo this procedure.

We all want to see the number of abortions in Britain falling. The reality is, however, that abortion will always need to be an option for some women. If safe, legal and clean abortions are made harder to obtain, the numbers of women seeking illegal terminations will certainly rise; thus greatly endangering their lives and long term health.

Given that the majority of abortions are carried out before 20 weeks, Prime Minister David Cameron’s view that the limit should be reduced to 20 weeks, also expressed by Home Secretary Theresa May and Minister for Women Maria Miller, does nothing to move the practical argument forward. Instead, what we see are the Tories attacking hard fought access to abortion which could ultimately harm the health of our nation.

Honeyball’s Weekly Round-Up

Labour Party

Last week, news was dominated by ‘that speech’ it was to become a defining moment in his leadership, and signalled to the country – even his harshest critics that Ed Miliband is ready to lead a government.

One commentator said the speech had its “real strength in its authenticity and the raw, at times poignant, emotion.” While others suggested that his last speech showed he could lead with conviction. You can read a full analysis from both left and right commentators on the Guardian’s Comment is Free site here. The performance, the delivery, the content were all rich- this was a leader telling us he was ready.

Meanwhile, it was an embarrassing week for the Government after the controversial West Coast train line deal, which had already received much unwanted media attention, fell through.

The shambolic deal had, what Virgin boss Richard Branson, called “significant flaws” from the start which, the then transport minister, Justine Greening should have recognised.

Three civil servants in questions have been suspended and a full investigation which could cost the tax payer (an estimated) £40mn will begin.

A thorough investigation will begin after the department failed to analyse the plans in great detail of FirstGroup who was awarded the franchise.

As Branson said these were completely unacceptable mistakes. A guardian poll of its readers showed Greening should go over the fiasco – 89% said in a poll that she should resign. You can read more here.

David Cameron is due to set out his agenda this week at the Conservative Party Conference. But by Sunday Cameron’s ‘scatter gun approach’ to Europe was already being attacked.

During an interview with Andrew Marr on Sunday Cameron said he was prepared to veto the next EU budget.

But the Guardian’s political editor Patrick Wintour was quick to point out in his blog that “David Cameron’s scattergun approach on EU risks UK national interest.”

His promise to adopt a ‘tough approach’ to Europe completely undermines British interests.

The Home Secretary, Theresa May, told the Sunday Times “that Britain is interested in imposing restrictions on the free movement of people around the EU.”

Again the problem with May’s unwise words is that they fail to acknowledge the interests of the UK. Wintour rightly points out that over the coming months Cameron must 1. Preserve Britain’s rebate in the budget negotiations and 2. Guarantee the integrity of the EU single market when the rules of the Eurozone are rewritten.

Wintour says: “Every word uttered by every minister over the coming months should be directed at achieving those two goals. By tabling a series of other demands the government will complicate the picture and strengthen the hand of opponents (France) that would dearly love to end Britain’s budget rebate and ensure that the single market is run by the 17 members of the Eurozone rather than by all 27 members of the EU.

“The prime minister also needs to be careful about pledging things he cannot deliver.”

Wintour goes on to give several examples of the consequences of reconfiguring the UKs relationship with Europe, such as:

• Theresa May’s idea of limiting the free movement of people through the EU can only be achieved in full by rewriting the 1957 Treaty of Rome, the founding treaty. This had at its heart the four pillars of what is now the EU – the free movement of labour, capital, goods and services.

In the highly unlikely event that Britain succeeded in curbing the free movement of people, France would probably demand an end to the free movement of services – a vital UK interest. So May’s idea will probably mean Britain will press for more modest measures such as imposing restrictions on the movement of citizens from new member states. So tiny Croatia will suffer, as will Turkey if it ever joins. How will this fit with another British aim – full Turkish membership of the EU?

This is something I have been addressing for many months. Cameron’s treading a dangerous path, perhaps he doesn’t understand the consequences of such reckless actions, and if this is correct then it’s even more worrying. You can read the blog in full here.

Honeyball’s Weekly Round-Up

Labour Party

‘The Human Rights Act should be axed’, said Theresa May this weekend. It has according to the home Secretary caused problems for the Home office.

The Act which enshrines the European Convention on Human Rights in to UK law, could go as early as next year if the Act is replaced by a Bill of Rights.

Somewhat unsurprisingly Cameron supported his Home Secretary, and -following his comments on the Andrew Marr show this morning- the only hold-up preventing it from going through so quickly is because of an agreement with the coalition.

It’s a reckless move and is well summed up by the head of Liberty, Shami Chakrabarti, who said:’ only a “pretty nasty party” would promote human rights in the Middle East while scrapping them at home.’ You can read more on this here.

It will be another busy week for the political commentators and sketch writers as they move their machines from Liverpool to Manchester and tell the world about the Conservatives big ideas.

Already we are aware of some of the big plans: Cameron has (apparently) pledged to build more affordable housing for example, but what is coming across clearer than any message which he actually intends to get across, is the disarray the party is in over its stance on Europe. Cameron seems unable to contain divisions over the EU and I suspect it will play out this week at conference quite vociferously.

Last week was of course the Labour Party conference where ED Miliband gave something of an impassioned speech. I hope to hear much more of this and as I said on BBC News last week when I was interviewed by the political correspondent Norman Smith, the Conservatives are in disarray over the economy- and this is beginning to be reflected in the opinion polls.

Also during Labour conference last week, Yvette Cooper told delegates that Cameron’s ‘sexism’ is driving away women, claims Labour. The shadow home secretary suggested the coalition was increasingly out of touch with women and the issues that matter to them.

She also told the Labour conference in Liverpool that Mr Cameron’s public persona was increasingly putting off female voters.

What do you expect when your Prime Minister dismisses many female MPs who question him, very publically, during PMQs and in exceptionally patronising ways? We all remember Labour MP Angela Eagle, being told to “Calm down, dear”, and then there was the attack on one of his own members only last month (the MP Nadine Dorries)…whatever next dear? You can read the story in full here.

Not enacting equality legislation and no female candidates for the GLA – the shameful Tory record on women

Labour Party

Interesting to see in today’s Guardian that Conservative Home Secretary Theresa May has asked firms to publish information on the gender pay gap – the discrepancy in pay between men and women – and male/female promotion rates. The Tories are obviously getting worried, evidenced by Theresa May’s appearance on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour and David Cameron’s suggestion in the House of Commons that the coalition government will look at female representation in boardrooms and at Westminster.

We should take the Tory attempt to improve the position of women for the cynical move that it really is. The Conservative Party still has no real commitment towards women. The most damning piece of evidence is the fact that all, yes all, of their candidates selected so far for the Greater London Assembly election next year are men. Not one woman, unbelievable in this day and age.

I find it hard to accept that a political party which cannot field any female candidates for an important regional body is at all serious about women. According to a policy memo, commissioned by the Lib-Dems and leaked to the Guardian, the coalition is very worried about their poor showing with women voters. Yet the government has still not enacted existing laws that would make gender auditing mandatory. May’s response to a question about this on Woman’s Hour was telling, exposing the Tories’ utter lack of commitment to equality for women: “The mandatory power is still available in the Act but I think if you make something mandatory they do it but only to the point at which they have to do it. We’re encouraging companies to look more widely at their equality issues in their workplace.”

So that’s all right then. The Tories will cozy up to their friends and supporters in business and hope that it will somehow all become OK for women because the Home Secretary thinks it should be. Women deserve better. We deserve equality legislation to be implemented and we deserve a government which will actually work for women not merely spout warm words in the hope of electoral advantage.   

It looks to me as if the Tories are being pushed by their Lib-Dem coalition “partners”. Maybe the Liberal-Democrats are feeling the need to stretch their wings following the unhappy outcomes of the two constitutional measures they wanted. Both the result of the referendum on the alternative vote and the recently published review to cut the number of seats in the House of Commons to 600 have been disastrous for the coalition’s very junior partner. Maybe the Lib-Dems have moved on to gender equality. If so, let’s hope the curse of Clegg doesn’t hit women’s rights as well as constitutional issues.

Being a female politician is about more than “sex appeal”, thank you.

Labour Party

Over recent weeks the British press have been almost ecstatically condemnatory of the chauvanistic nature of French politics, talking loudly of how dreadful it must be to be a woman in politics in France.

Indeed, recent revelations along with what we have always known about French political culture would offer no evidence to the contrary. What is remarkable, however, is the self-righteousness with which news of the DSK affair (among others) have been received in Britain.  There has been an overwhelming smugness displayed by both the media and British politicians that Britain does not have France’s chauvinism problem.

However, today I read in the Times an interview piece on Rachida Dati who the Times itself described as one of the most prominent victims of France’s overtly sexist political culture. Yet, the first paragraph of the piece reads:

“After the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair, at a time when France is fretting over sexism and the limits of seduction, it seemed fitting to be talking to Rachida Dati. The most glamorous of the mould-breaking women whom Nicolas Sarkozy took to power with him in 2007, Dati was sacked and banished from the Elysée Palace two years ago, but she remains a symbol of how French women have it both ways. They can wield power and high-octane sex appeal at the same time, using the latter to enhance the former”

Firstly, why on earth is her “high-octane” sex appeal and her glamour the most important things to mention about her? If this was a biopic on any male politician there is no way that the first paragraph would mention any octane of sex appeal, nor would it then go on to talk about what they were wearing, yet we are made aware that Dati looked “impeccable in couture trouser-suit and heels” and has both “big dark eyes and perfect make-up”.

Dati is not the only example of how female politicians are judged and evaluated by their appearance. Much as I am not the biggest fan of Theresa May, I find it abhorrent that she is judged by the British press on what kind of shoes she wears or how often she wears the same jacket. I have also blogged before about by what criteria women are judged to be powerful – overwhelmingly as a result of their husband’s status or through their effect upon popular culture rather than politics or business.

The most shocking statement made in the article however is that which states that French women use their sex-appeal to obtain and enhance their power.  This appalling argument is one that has formed a cornerstone of the cultural myth surrounding powerful women: That their power is reliant first and foremost upon their sex appeal and therefore dependent upon manipulation of men.

Not only does this have the implicit effect of pitting women against women (since power is dependent upon men’s favour it must be obtained in precedence of other women) but also renders a the power a woman holds illegitimate in the eyes of the masses. A female politician perceived to have got where she is by seduction can never be thought as worthy as a man who has got there by hard work and genius.

This myth is not only damaging but overwhelmingly false. The most powerful women today and in recent history, for example Angela Merkel, Margaret Thatcher or Dimla Rousseff, did not make it to power based upon their sex appeal or sexual manipulation of male politicians. Such women are also examples of the real change enacted by women upon the world stage and just how effective they can be as politicians.

What is actually most dangerous about this treatment of powerful women in the media is that all of this intrusive and irrelevant fluff about their appearance or personal life is given precedence over any discussion of policy, ideas or achievements. Nowhere in the Times article is there any mention of anything Dati actually did as Minister of Justice. This attitude is a problem for all female politicians, not just the most “glamorous”. If women in politics are only evaluated by the press for their appearance and their personal or family life, how are we meant to convince men in politics and the wider public as a whole to take us or our ideas seriously?

This is an issue so insidious that many simply fail to recognise it, or accept it as normal, but until we confront it and, as female politicians, demand to be judged on the criteria of policy, accountability and deed neither we nor the rest of the women of Britain will achieve equality.

Sex Offenders, Prisoners and Europe

Labour Party

You couldn’t make it up if you tried. By one of those tricks fate occasionally throws up we have seen two European Court of Human Rights rulings come to the fore in the past couple of weeks.

Prisoners getting the vote and those convicted of sexual offences coming off the sex offenders’ register are not matters to be treated at all lightly. Put these together with a European institution and you have a potent mix. The waters then get very muddied as Tory  anti-European feelings become part of the equation.

I have blogged before about prisoners voting, and I have to say I largely agree with Justice Secretary Ken Clarke in that I have no real objection to giving the franchise to this group of people and believe that in the end most of them won’t vote.

Sex offenders present more complex problems. Protection of the public has to be the main aim of any criminal justice system, especially children and young people and other vulnerable groups. This should be at the forefront of our thinking.

I have to say I have been shocked by those who have sought to turn this into a debate on parliamentary sovereignty with seemingly very little concern for the victims of sexual crimes.

Given that this debate is about public protection, there seems to me little problem with sex offenders on the register being allowed to appeal after a reasonable length of time, perhaps 15 years as is the case in Scotland.  It is, after all, only an appeal not a guarantee that the offender will come off the register, and if handled properly should reflect the offender’s likelihood of re-offending. In other words, a sex offender who is still dangerous will not be removed from the register.

In my worst moments it has seemed to me that the sex offenders issue, something which directly affects lives in the most dreadful way, has been turned into an anti-European tirade and used to attack the European Convention on Human Rights.

As many of you know I used to work for the Probation Service. I therefore know at first hand the appalling damage crimes of a sexual nature can cause. I only hope this Tory-led coalition government and Home Secretary Theresa May in particular will start to see this issue in terms of the victims, those who have suffered so much. It’s about making sure we protect the public to keep the numbers of victims as low as we possibly can, not about her and her government’s feelings on Europe.

The Tories’ Real Record on Women’s Rights

Labour Party

I have been reading with some amazement recent statements on women from senior Tories, in particular David Cameron and Theresa May.  In David Cameron’s speech to the Conservative Party spring conference last month, he emphasised how “family-friendly” his party’s manifesto would be with the “right to flexibility to everyone with children”.  Last week Theresa May used the occasion of International Women’s Day to make a “pledge of support for women” in the Guardian online pages. 

All fine sentiments, but female voters beware!  Beyond Cameron and May’s words, there is little sense that there is any support for such policies in the core of the Tory party, or little evidence that the party leadership have the will to implement them.  Indeed, as I have blogged before, the voting record of Tory MEPs on women’s rights issues since David Cameron became leader is appalling, and exposes the fact that really nothing has changed in the Nasty Party.

For example, in 2006 Tory MEPs voted against a Report on combating violence against women, which included provisions on making rape within marriage a criminal offence, eliminating female genital mutilation, and encouraging cross border cooperation on so-called “honour” crimes, all matters mentioned by Theresa May in her Guardian article as commitments of a future Tory government. 

Yet it seems her MEPs do not share these concerns.  As recently as 2009, the Tory MEPs abstained in a vote urging member states to improve their national policies on combating violence against women, where the importance of recognising rape within marriage as a criminal offence was again underlined. 

On childcare, the EU adopted Employment guidelines as part of the EU’s Growth and Jobs strategy in 2008.  These guidelines included targets for flexible working, and access to childcare, surely a key element of Cameron’s pledge of the “right to flexibility to everyone with children”.  Again, this failed to get the Conservative MEPs’ backing.

In February of this year, the Tories voted against a report which included provisions on the need to tackle the gender pay gap – another issue Theresa May purports to be in favour of – and to link maternity and paternity leave.  The Tories in the European Parliament explicitly disagreed with the call to establish paternity leave across Europe, and against linking paternity and maternity leave to ensure fathers are able to take time off as well.  The report in question also contained a provision on one of David Cameron’s priority policies, combating persistent sexist stereotyping and degrading images.  Again the Tory MEPs voted against.

David Cameron said last month in his speech that as a parent he “dreads switching on the television and being bombarded with commercial messages”.  However, in 2008, the European Parliament discussed the issue of advertising and stereotypes in the media.  Member States were urged to ensure that marketing and advertising did not uphold discriminatory stereotypes, and consider the impact of advertising on children and teenagers’ body image and self-esteem, and yet 15 Tory MEPs still managed to vote against this measure.

I continue to be amazed at the disingenuousness of Cameron’s approach.  If he and his party were serious about family friendly policies and women’s rights, they would not let their MEPs vote so brazenly against these reports which recognise the importance of these issues. 

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that, with a general election drawing near, the Tories suddenly remember that they need to try and appeal to women, who do make up over 50% of the electorate, but I would urge female voters not to fall for these well-scripted sentiments, when time and time again it can be shown that they are not supported by the Tories in any way that matters.