Thursday, 14 December 2017

My thoughts on the Church of England's "Valuing All God's Children" Anti Homophobic, Biphobic and Transphobic Bullying Guide

It can be quite tough at times juggling different parts of your identity. I on the one hand am a proud trans non-binary person, living my life openly and publically, feeling like I'm winning the battle with my gender dysphoria whilst at the same time feeling that every time I meet a new person, I may somehow offend them by my mere existence. I am someone who puts their faith in God to help traverse the path of life, a Lutheran Christian who believes it is more important to value compassion, respect and tolerance over being overly judgemental, petty minded and sanctimonious. Christians should aim to follow Jesus' example, no matter how difficult it might be to follow at times. We're not perfect and we can all be prone to being judgemental, especially if such judgements are based on lack of interaction with people whom one is pronouncing those judgements. Part of being a progressive Christian should be to recognise when we are being judgemental and try to take positive steps to prevent us from making those same judgements in the future because sometimes we have to accept that our words and/or deeds can have unforeseen consequences. Take for example friend. A few years ago he was watching Manchester United vs Chelsea in our local pub (it's literally 2 mins from the door but I hardly attend myself but my bro loves the atmosphere) and he made a string of homophobic comments which he dressed up as "banter" against one of my brother's other friends "on the spur of the moment" who happened to be bisexual. This young guy tried to brush off the comments but a few days later he phoned my brother to tell him that the comments made by the "banterous" friend had made him feel as if he didn't belong in the pub group and that he wouldn't attend in the future so as not to be subject to targeted mockery and insults. My brother made it clear to his other friend after the phone call that his behaviour had been completely unacceptable and that he needs to think more about the line between "banter" and homophobic and biphobic comments. Mr Banter never made such comments again after this intervention. Sometimes there has to be a conversation that makes it clear what constitutes hateful comments so that the situation does not escalate into bullying. A firm approach is to be welcomed, even if others may be upset that their freedom to speak has been curtailed.

The Church of England does have a role to play in tackling all forms of discrimination in society and that includes in their schools. Currently there are 4,664 Church of England primary and secondary schools in England and 200 church schools in Wales. Approximately 1 million children attend church schools in England and Wales (https://www.churchofengland.org/more/education-and-schools/church-schools-and-academies). Setting a good moral example for children and young people to follow is one of the most important duties that educational professionals have and it is one that should be taken seriously. The Church of England has realised that in some cases, this duty has not been fulfilled correctly, especially in relation to discrimination against people who happen to LGBTQIA+ (students, staff, parents, family members, neighbours and strangers). Unfortunately, evidence has shown that discrimination against LGBTQIA+ people within schools still remains commonplace, especially against trans, non-binary, gender-fluid, genderqueer and agender people (see the Stonewall School Report for more information). So I am very pleased to see the Church of England taking a firmer stance against homophobia, biphobia and transphobia, one which focuses on trying to follow Jesus' example and remembering that the Bible tells us that everyone has been made in the Image of God.

In order to help students and staff in Church of England schools tackle existing discrimination against LGBTQIA+ students and staff,  the Church of England has issued detailed updated guidance (entitled Valuing All God's Children: https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2017-11/Valuing%20All%20God%27s%20Children%27s%20Report_0.pdf).  In the introductory section, it is made explicitly clear that staff and students should remember that according to Christian theology, there is "the truth that every single one of us is made in the Image of God" and that their love for us is unconditional (I'm someone who believes God is neither male nor female and does not conform to any gender stereotypes that might exist on Earth because they are beyond our human comprehension. God may know everything (he is Omniscient) including our little White lies but he also happens to be Omnibenevolent too). Church school staff need to remember that the virtues of compassion, tolerance and respect should be valued and put into practice wherever possible because there should be a desire to try and love  unconditionally wherever possible. This includes making LGBTQIA+ students aware of their "intrinsic value" whilst also celebrating their collective humanity in a joyful manner.

Valuing All God's Children is an extremely well-research document, drawing on a number of recent studies to paint a picture of the current situation facing LGBTQIA+ students in schools, including the Stonewall School Survey 2017. The findings and recommendations contained within that survey should certainly be taken on board and I recommend anyone with the time accesses the document and familiarizes themselves with the key figures. One of the most shocking statistics (and noted in the Valuing God's Children guidance is that "9% of trans young people are subjected to death threats at school". No young person should ever receive a death threat, whether made face-to-face, on paper or on social media made by their peers or by anyone else for that matter. It needs to be made clear in RE lessons and PSHE lessons that such actions will not be tolerated and a strong disciplinary procedure should be in place in every school that gives staff a framework to follow in the event that a LGBTQIA+ student (or their friend/peer) informs them a death threat has been made against them (or their friend/peer). Another statistic that is important to pull out from the Stonewall School Survey that relates directly to faith schools is that students attending faith schools are "less likely to report that their school says homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying (HBT) is wrong". There may be staff members who will say they do not know what might constitute HBT bullying; one staff member may think it's OK for students to misgender a student who has socially transitioned based on their own belief that "there are 2 genders" or simply that misgendering doesn't constitute a serious enough offence for them to take corrective action. As the guidance notes: "HBT language....can often be considered as casual and it is therefore often dismissed as "harmless banter".  It should be made crystal clear that misgendering is a form of bullying, especially if it occurs deliberately and regularly as a way of mocking a child to try and get them to "conform" whilst in the classroom. I agree with the view put forward in the Valuing All God's Children guidance that schools need to denounce any form of HBT language that occurs in the classroom to send a consistent message to students that use of such language will not be tolerated socially and contravenes Christian values. In order to help staff implement this zero-tolerance approach to HBT language and bullying successfully, schools should "develop an "agreed school script"" telling them "how to address issues of bullying and the misuse of language to infer derogatory status to LGBT people" (p8). Updating the anti-bullying policy, equality policy and safeguarding policies so that they make explicit reference to no tolerance of HBT bullying is important and staff should be made aware of such policies and the "agreed school script" through Continuing Professional Development sessions (for existing staff) and embedded into the induction period schedule for new staff members.

The Church of England's Valuing All God's Children guidance needs to be seen as part of the overall strategy for a more inclusive and well-rounded educational programme for students in C of E schools. This is informed by a truly Christian vision "with the promise by Jesus of "life in all its fullness" (John 10:10) at its heart. For students to follow this vision, they should remember four key words:
  • Wisdom: when students learn about the harmful nature of bullying, including HBT bullying, they are more likely to want to learn techniques to protect themselves and others from HBT bullying and instead value "their own uniqueness and the uniqueness of others" (p10). Students should be taught about the "legal context of people's rights" in the UK (that must include the Gender Recognition Act 2004 in addition to the Equality Act 2010) to prepare them for a productive adult life. Students should also be able to "discern when to stand up for justice" (p10), helping people who feel they are being devalued by society (through no fault of their own).
  • Hope: Students in C of E schools should "have the hope of being free to be themselves" so they have a better chance of achieving their full potential. Students should be given an opportunity to "learn from their mistakes" and be forgiven for making those mistakes so there is a greater hope that the world will be a "more caring and peaceful" (p10) one in the future.
  • Dignity: Students who are LGBTQIA+ should be specially and carefully protected and nurtured (in the same way Jesus cared for the marginalised and feared) by schools. LGBTQIA+ students should also be empowered to "live fulfilled, embodied lives" (p10) and celebrate the diversity of humanity.
  • Community: Students should be reminded of the importance of being "neighbourly" and school staff should allow students to "explore their identity without fear of harm, judgement or being ostracized". At the same time, students who have made mistakes should "be allowed to falter, get things wrong and try again as they work out how to be in relationship with themselves and others". The C of E believes in a "community of compassion" which allows people to make mistakes and correct them with the help of staff and their peers (the definition of "Love your neighbour as yourself" (Hebrews 10:24). 
I'm glad that the guidance makes it clear that tackling HBT language and bullying is not going to stifle freedom of speech as some Christians on the right have suggested. The reality of the situation is that C of E school staff have a range of views on "same sex marriage, sexual orientation and gender identity" which should be respected and acknowledged in the existing PSHE/RE curriculum. Subjects that encourage debate about controversial issues are an intrinsic part of a well-rounded curriculum and staff should not be afraid to initiate such debates. The guidance points to Professor Trevor Cooling's "Bedouin tent of meeting" model as being a handy one for Church schools to adopt: "This strategy asks teachers or facilitators to host a space where different views can be aired and honoured: "a place of hospitality, welcome and respectful engagement, sacred and mutual, but not neutral to its own Christian values, whilst being genuinely open to the free expression of engagement".   The Church of England for example currently states that same sex marriage cannot be officiated by Church of England clergy or in churches but that stance is not reflective of the views of the General Synod or lay Anglicans as a whole. There will be disagreements in schools between staff members on this issue but the guidance makes clear that no "back turning" should happen as a result of those disagreements. That being said, action still needs to be taken to tackle HBT language and bullying actions when they occur because these go beyond mere disagreement.

The Valuing All God's Children guidance is progressive in the sense that it accepts that for many young people living in the UK today, "LGBT rights are a non-issue, just a matter of fact, a given". This is backed up by research; the latest British Social Attitudes Survey, conducted by the National Centre for Social Research in 2016 (measuring public attitudes around trans issues for the first time using a random probability survey) found that 61% of 18-24 answered that prejudice against trans people "is always wrong" but only 40% of those aged over 65 answered in that way but the difference reduces when taking into account the "always or mostly" option (76% of 18-24 and 64% of over 65s) when (http://www.bsa.natcen.ac.uk/media/39147/bsa34_moral_issues_final.pdf). Unfortunately, the research also indicated that only 40% of people believed that trans people should definately be employed as a police officer or primary school teacher and 21% of respondents stated that trans people should never become primary school teachers. Such research reveals the importance of schools, especially faith ones, to challenge transphobia and discrimination in primary as well as secondary schools to prepare young people for the reality of working life, when it will become more likely that they will meet trans, non-binary, gender-fluid, genderqueer and agender people.

The guidance makes reference to key legislation and Government duties that need to be followed by all schools regardless of their religious preference. It's great to see such information included in a clear and easily accessible manner, pointing out where such  legislation has an impact on schools to tackle HBT bullying. For example, Part 6 of the Equality Act 2010 "which applies to all maintained schools and academies, makes it unlawful for the responsible body of a school to discriminate against, harass or victimise a pupil or potential pupil" in relation to the admissions process, access to the school curriculum or exclusion policy. This means that a Church of England school cannot refuse to admit a potential pupil on the basis of their self-declared sexual orientation or perceived sexual orientation at the time (this will apply more to secondary schools) or the actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity of their parents. Equally a pupil cannot be excluded from school on the basis of their actual or perceived sexual orientation or on the basis of actual or perceived gender identity. Quite clearly such examples of discrimination would not be acceptable in most schools, but faith schools need to be aware that parents can take that school to court over failure to adhere to the Equality Act.

Another aspect of the legal framework referred to in the guidance that should be highlighted is that teachers do have powers under the Education and Inspection Act 2006 to "discipline pupils for conduct that occurs at a time when the pupil is not on the school premises and is not under the lawful control or change of a member of the school's staff". These powers can only be enacted where it would be considered reasonable for the school to intervene "to regulate pupils' behaviour". HBT bullying incidents that occur on school or public transport, within the local area (particularly when pupils are still in their school uniform and thus representing the school) could be reported by the victim, friends, peers or concerned people for the school pastoral team to examine. In fact the guidance makes it clear that "any bullying outside school, which is then reported to school staff should be investigated and the appropriate action should be taken" (p15). Failing to do so could be seen as a failure of the school to safeguard LGBTQIA+ pupils' welfare and a tacit acceptance that staff do not see HBT bullying "as the school's problem" when pupils are not on school premises.

Statutory Inspection of Anglican and Methodist Schools (SIAMS):

As well as adhering to the legal framework and being subject to Ofsted inspections, Anglican schools are also inspected under SIAMS. The guidance from SIAMS states that for Anglican schools to get an excellent or good rating, they have to demonstrate "how well the school has created an environment where all pupils can flourish and are treated with dignity and respect (p17). This includes providing creating opportunities within the existing curriculum that allows pupils to "understand, respect, and celebrate difference and diversity" (p17). I'd say this means ensuring that the story of LGBTQIA+ role models are incorporated into lessons wherever possible (e.g. celebrating gay World War 1 poets in English Literature) and encouraging young people in secondary schools to explore the contribution that the LGBTQIA+ community has made towards modern society (including the Lesbians and Gays Supports the Miners organisation).

All Anglican schools should aim towards putting in place policies and procedures to prevent incidents of prejudicial behaviour from occurring. This means taking on board the views of pupils themselves in the drafting of policies and procedures (certainly doable in secondary schools) and empowering students so they can take the lead "in challenging prejudicial behaviour and language" (p17). This could be achieved by appointing more young prefects/mentors who are LGBTQIA+ to school councils and making students aware of the anti-bullying policy (in an age appropriate way) so pupils themselves know how to identify instances of HBT bullying and language and know who and where to report to.

Practical measures (General):
  1. Headteachers should speak clearly about LGBTQIA+ equality and speak out against HBT bullying and language on a regular basis during morning assembly
  2. Teachers should speak clearly about LGBTQIA+ equality and about the school's zero-tolerance approach to HBT bullying in lessons
  3. Teachers and pastoral staff should be given training through Continuing Professional Development schemes to identify all instances of HBT bullying and language and be empowered to take appropriate action
  4. Teachers should be able to signpost LGBTQIA+ pupils appropriately so they can receive tailored support (either from trained colleagues within the school pastoral team or from professional organisations such as Mermaids and Stonewall)
  5. Headteachers and teachers should ensure that the school curriculum being delivered is inclusive and allows for ample opportunity to address sexuality, gender, gender identity, gender expression and other LGBTQIA+ issues in an age-appropriate manner; this will help create a "culture of respect towards LGBT pupils and will actively contribute to the prevention of HBT bullying" (p18)
  6. Schools should look at participating in events including LGBT Month and Trans Day of Remembrance.
Practical measures: Primary:
  1. Teachers should allow children to explore gender through play: "play should be a hallmark of creative exploration". Opportunities must be provided where children can "explore the possibilities of who they might be without judgement or derision". I do agree with the guidance in that labels are not necessarily fixed but teachers, teaching assistants, pastoral staff and other school staff should avoid using pejorative language (don't label a child's behaviour as abnormal just because they are not fitting into traditional gender stereotyping)
  2. Teachers should be prepared to read gender diverse books in English lessons with students: I recommend Are You A Boy or Are You A Girl? by the extremely talented writer Sarah Savage and illustrator Fox Fisher who happen to be trans and trans non-binary respectively (the book introduces the character of Tiny who enjoys dressing up but doesn't want to tell family or friends that they are a boy or a girl and embraces themselves proudly) but there are other books too including I Am Jazz (based on the true story of trans teenager Jazz Jennings), Introducing Teddy: A Gentle Story about Gender and Friendship (where Teddy tells their friend Errol they want to live as Tilly (a girl teddy) and Errol accepts them for who they are) and All I Want to be is Me (an amazing book that celebrates the full diversity of the gender spectrum) 
  3. Schools need to "promote an anti-bullying stance", including anti HBT bullying at all times in accordance with existing Anti-Bullying policies and procedures
  4. Teachers should address HBT language used in the classroom as soon as it arises (for example, explaining to a girl in an age-appropriate way that calling a pencil case gay is using the word gay in a flippant and inappropriate way and she should refrain from using the word in that context in the future). 
Practical measures: Secondary: 
  1. Secondary schools should be places where young people are allowed to explore their identity free from prejudice and discrimination 
  2. Students should continue to "explore the prejudice and the harmful language of labelling and stereotype that can surround issues of sexual orientation and gender identity". This should happen not just within PSHE lessons but across the school curriculum, including in Religious Education
  3. Schools should embed LGBTQIA+ rights and topics within PSHE and Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) especially so LGBTQIA+ students feel they are included and empowered and all students are aware of the fact that LGBTQIA+ people can lead happy and healthy live (e.g. they can get married). Introduce LGBTQIA+ role models to students and invite local LGBTQIA+ people to come into school and deliver talks/lessons on gender identity, the LGBTQIA+ rights movement etc
  4. PSHE should also be a lesson where gender stereotypes are tackled so that all students can develop a positive sense of gender identity. Students at Key Stage 3 should for example explore gender stereotyping in advertising and clothing and have discussions based on their understanding of gender stereotyping in the music industry or in sports. 
  5. Teachers should that all students leave school aware of key equality legislation so they can be model citizens and workers in the future (bare minimum should be awareness of the Equality Act 2010 and the Gender Recognition Act 2004)
  6. Schools should try to avoid Gender segregated activities wherever possible (except PE lessons where separation is typical for contact based sports)
  7. Schools should ensure that trans and non-binary students can access the facilities that best correspond with their gender identity so they feel safe and secure and reduce the likelihood of transphobic bullying and harassment
  8. Teachers should be able to signpost LGBTQIA+ students themselves to appropriate services if they need further information or need to talk to other people who are LGBTQIA+ whether local or nationally. 
Conclusion:
Christians have a duty to try and follow the teachings and actions of Jesus and his disciples as closely as possible; remember the importance of the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37): the Levite and the priest never demonstrated compassion towards the traveller who had been attacked and left for dead but a Samaritan, whose nation was despised by the Jews helped the man by cleaning his wounds, transported him to an inn and paid for his care out of his own expenses and was praised by Jesus for his compassion. Being compassionate and tolerant should come easily but too often Christians are amongst those who are too quick to cast the first stone and judge based on stereotypes, caricatures and stigma. Christians who are teachers, teaching assistants, headteachers and members of the pastoral staff should be willing to empower LGBTQIA+ students to be themselves. The updated guidance from the Church of England is timely; it reinforces the need for robust Anti-Bullying Strategies, frank conversations on gender identity and sexual orientation with a variety of viewpoints being offered and, rather importantly, making it clear that LGBTQIA+ students are welcome to be part of the congregation and engage in collective worship. There are policy documents that can be reviewed, adapted and then adopted by Church of England schools and I especially approve of the Church of England's survey proposal to see whether the resource is being utilised effectively and "determine whether any additional resource is required to support dioceses and schools" (p.25). I hope that headteachers and school governors across the board audit their current policies and procedures and actively engage in making their school more LGBTQIA+ friendly, including redesigning the PSHE curriculum and preparing for the new RSE curriculum (if they do not currently have a comprehensive programme in place) . Not only will having a compassionate, open-minded school environment benefit LGBTQIA+ students but their peers too and prepare them for the reality of living a diverse, vibrant world, one they should not be afraid to explore for themselves.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Tory Austerity Lite's Still Failing Us: Autumn Budget 2017 Thoughts from 4 Voters in Lincoln:

As I've done several times before in this blog, I thought it'd be interesting to examine and
scrutinise the Autumn Budget 2017 policy measures with a group of 4 voters from Lincoln. 2 of them (Voters A and D) fall into the still much cited category of "JAMs" -the Just About Managing voters (who are described as barely affording to pay essential bills but still have enough  disposable income to afford a few treats in the year) whilst 2 of them (Voters B and C) can be described as more comfortably well off.

The voters have different political affiliations and voted differently on Brexit in June 2016.
  1. Administrative Assistant at an Accountancy Practice. Labour voter who voted to Leave the EU.
  2.  Owner of a logistics firm. Conservative voter who voted to Leave the EU.
  3. Sales and Marketing Manager at a local firm. Labour voter who voted to Remain in the EU.
  4. Charity Shop Worker. Lib Dem voter who voted to Remain in the EU.
Here's a few summary points from the discussion (for those who don't have time to read the whole table):
  • Most of the voters were happy with announcements on Maths and Science teaching, the prospect of a 26-30 discounted railcard  and appreciated the freeze on Fuel Duty and Alcohol Duties (except for white ciders). 
  • Most of the voters believe the abolishing of the Stamp Duty will help some first-time buyers but there needs to be more support for private renters.
  • Voters A, C and D thought that there should be an increase in the Council Tax Premium levied on empty home owners in Lincoln.
  • There was some concern shown as to whether some of the funding increases/ allocations announced would actually benefit Lincoln residents in the long-term especially housing funding. More detail needs to be offered by the City of Lincoln Council and Lincolnshire County Council on this as they begin to assess what the Budget will mean for Lincoln and Lincolnshire.
  • Voters A and C thought that investments in R&D were too high and that some of the money should be diverted to help sustain frontline public services instead (Schools and Hospitals in particular).
  • Voters noticed the absence of funding allocated to Social Care and Policing and attributed that to Brexit.
  • Voters expressed dismay at the lower than expected increase in the National Living Wage for the over 25s but were fairly pleased with the planned increase in the Personal Allowance.
  • Voters A, C and D were highly critical of the Universal Credit announcements and want to see the Government pause the roll-out until issues are addressed.
  • Voters A, C and D are worried about potentially leaving the EU without a free trade deal.
  • Voter intentions seem to remain unchanged although Voter C did state they were undecided at the moment because of how Labour are handling the Brexit negotiations.

Here's the results below:


Autumn Budget Proposal
Voter A:
Voter B:
Voter C:
Voter D:
£3bn to help the UK prepare for Brexit over the next 2 years in addition to the £700m already invested.
I'm not sure £3bn is going to be enough to help us weather any economic storm following a Hard Brexit. It's disappointing that the Government are still talking about the prospect of a No Deal; surely it's better to compromise and secure a free trade deal by offering the EU a decent financial settlement than walk off with nothing.
The Chancellor is well within his rights to put money aside in the event that Brexit negotiations break down but I think he's being a bit too hasty. However, if we left the EU without a deal, any
short term economic pain will be offset massively by free trade deals negotiated outside the EU. I'm sick and tired of people talking British businesses and the Government down. There's no evidence to suggest there would be a great recession. Remoaners need to get on board with the program now.
£3bn will not be anywhere near enough to help us if we end up leaving the EU without having secured a trade deal. It won't even cover potential extra NHS running costs let alone help people with huge inflation rises. Hammond hasn't even said what he'd spend the money on in terms of Brexit preparation. If we weren't leaving the EU our economy would have probably grown even more and we'd have more money to fund Social Care and Policing, which weren't even mentioned in this Budget!
I understand why Mr Hammond feels the need to squirrel away money for a potential short-term economic crisis following a Hard Brexit but I don't believe it'll come to that. The EU wants to trade with us and they may be willing to compromise to secure that trade deal. Then maybe most of the money can be spent on giving nurses a pay rise or funding Mental Health services in Lincolnshire.
Tax free Personal Allowance Income tax threshold rise from £11,500 to £11,850 from April 2018.
I'm afraid that the Personal Allowance increase isn't going to help young people very much, let alone families. What's going to happen if prices keep rising? It's costing me more money to buy the kids Christmas presents this year. I doubt Mr Hammond has to worry about budgeting for them!
Excellent proposal announcement by Mr Hammond that's going to help Just-About-Managing families across Lincoln. You wouldn't get such a policy measure from McDonnell!
It's a good start I guess but I'd have liked to have seen the allowance increase to £12,000. Maybe next year?!



Wow! Another rise in the Person Allowance will help me save money towards a deposit on my first house, so that's good news!
National Living Wage rise of £0.32 from April 2018.
I'm disappointed by the pitiful rise in the NLW this year. It's not going to be enough to help young people save for a house and my son, who's an Apprentice is only getting an extra 20p an hour.  Why can't young people under the age of 25 and Apprentices be paid the same amount as me or my peers?
I think £0.32 rise was satisfactory.
I can't believe those under 25 are still moaning about not being paid the same as those over the age of 25. How do they think small businesses can stay afloat if they start paying the NLW to all employees? As for paying everyone the Living Wage (£8.75) that's a farcical notion!
£7.83 an hour is still a small amount really for working in care homes or doing the cleaning in offices. You hear of people on benefits turning down work because the employer or agency can't pay them more than the NLW. With Brexit happening and people leaving the country, how are businesses going to get the staff to replace them? They're going to have to raise the NLW to a decent amount....why not pay everyone who's not an Apprentice £8.75 an hour?
I know some SMEs would struggle to pay an extra £1.75 an hour to pay the Living Wage but maybe an extra 50p an hour would have been a better offer so workers can prepare for possible food and clothing inflation and still afford to pay the rent.
Abolish Stamp Duty on all homes under £300,000 for first-time buyers
This is all well and good for young people who have managed to club  together the money for a deposit and mortgage but those of us who already have a property and want to move will still have to pay the Stamp Duty. As for private renters, there was little in the Budget to help them. Shame!
I think this is a well thought-through policy that'll help my children get onto the property ladder. Young people should aspire to own a home of their own and the Conservatives are the ones to help them achieve their dreams.
The Tories have once again missed the mark. What happens if demand for homes in Lincoln increases and that pushes up house prices? Those who are looking to move homes rather than buy their first one may end up paying more for the house. That's no good. Plus there's no mention of council housing in this Budget; the Government needs to look after vulnerable people and not just rich people.
This policy announcement couldn't have come at a better time! I'm excited to buy my first house with my boyfriend and the money saved on the Stamp Duty could go towards paying Estate Agent fees or to buy new furniture. First-time buyers needed an extra incentive to purchase and this was it.
£44bn in capital loans to help build 300,000 homes being built by mid 2020s.
We do need to build more homes so that everyone can have a suitable place to live, including people on Housing Benefit. I don't believe the Tories will build 300,000 homes a year and even if they did, most of them would be for people to buy. We need more council houses now, not in the future.

With the massive influx of people from Eastern Europe over the past 13 years, we have ended up in a position where we now have a housing shortage. The loans need to be taken out to build the extra housing but I hope that there aren't many more developments in Lincolnshire. We need to protect our countryside from being over-developed I think.
Housing's a big issue in Lincoln. I know families who are desperate to find an affordable home to rent and it's good that Lincoln City Council are investing in house building on waste land already. I don't know how much of the funding Lincolnshire will get for house-building and I'm not convinced the Tories will ever be able to help build 300,000 homes a year. They never seem to meet their targets on anything else!
More housing in the Lincoln area which would be affordable (and not just to satisfy an increase in students) would be greatly appreciated . I hope Lincolnshire will get some of the capital loan funding but we won't know any details until next year I guess.

Ability for councils to 100% premium council tax on empty homes
I think it's right that the City of Lincoln Council should be allowed to charge a 100% premium on empty homes. There may not be many here but the extra money can help fund bin collections.
I don't really understand why this policy is needed. If a council can already charge a 50% premium, is it that fair to double it just because the home being held for investment purposes?
Homes should only ever be empty for a few months of the year. They need to be maintained properly. If some home owners only buy a property for investment reasons, they should be forced to sell within a year or two. It's like people who buy land for development and they never use it. The Government needs to stop that from happening.
This is a fair measure that should bring in some extra money in Lincoln but I'm guessing the areas which will benefit the most will be in London.
£40m to train Maths teachers and £600 Maths Premium for schools, for every pupil taking A-Level or Core Maths.
It's alright encouraging more young people to take Maths A-Level but not everyone is going to be a Maths genius and we shouldn't neglect the importance of Arts subjects, including English. Let's stop stifling creativity in schools. Where's the extra money for art materials or musical instruments? We need an Arts Pupil Premium.
Maths gives people the core skills they need to be savvy business entrepreneurs. Those who study Maths will earn more in their working lives. Why should they be told to take fluffy subjects Media Studies or Drama when all it teaches them is how to draft a newspaper article or how to use a different accent. Those skills aren't useful in today's competitive jobs market.
While I appreciate the need for more people to be good at Maths, I don't understand how learning geometry or formulas would help me in my job. I guess there are vacancies in engineering but not every young person wants to go into engineering. I agree with Voter A. We need more money for creative subjects to help with social skills and verbal communication.
I can understand the Government's decision to invest in Maths. Engineering firms are struggling to hire young people with the right skills in Lincolnshire and getting schools to encourage more of them to study A-Level Maths and Engineering is important.
8,000 extra Computer Science teachers so there is 1 qualified teacher in every UK secondary school
I guess we all need to be competent at using computers in the workplace so this is a good policy measure.
Young people need to know how to code, how to use computer software packages beyond MS Office. This was a no-brainer policy move.
I never studied ICT beyond Year 9 in school and it never did me any harm in the workplace. I guess coding would be a good skill to learn but I don't think every child should be forced into putting all their effort into Sciencey or Techie subjects.
It's important to have qualified subject teachers in schools and Computer Science should be no exception. Coding skills, formatting skills and graphics skills are all utilised by marketing people in small businesses.
£20m to support introduction of T-Levels in Further Education Colleges
I didn't know what a T-Level was until my friend explained it to me. I think it's good to recognise vocational skills in hairdressing or accounting.
Another great policy decision by the Conservatives. Who said they weren't the party of Education?
As long as the T-Level isn't just another rebranding exercise, this will be good for young people. Colleges need more funding though so they can continue running A-Levels and short-courses and employing good lecturers.
£20m doesn't sound very much for FE colleges but it's only to get the T-Level courses organised. Maybe some of the money will be spent on hiring more teaching staff...I don't know really.
£30m in Digital Skills distance learning courses as part of a National Retraining Scheme (run by the CBI and TUC in partnership with the Government)
I wonder how many people in Lincoln will benefit from this scheme in the future. If it's not advertised or promoted well enough, not many.
A National Retraining Scheme is a great concept and will help older workers learn the digital skills they need to gain good jobs.
I thought the ECDL qualification was meant to help people learn digital skills. Why not fund that instead of designing yet another course and put the money into other projects?
This is a great idea. Nobody should be left on the scrapheap as a result of changes in technology. It's just going to take a lot of marketing of the Scheme and encouraging people to see it as useful.
Fuel Duty rise cancelled again.
Good news but the cost of car insurance will probably offset any benefits from this and if petrol prices rise, I may start taking the bus to work.
I don't drive currently so the measure won't affect me. I know my friends are quite pleased they won't be paying more for petrol. I read in the Sun ASDA reduced the cost of petrol by 2p after the announcement so maybe prices will reduce across the board.
The Tories are frightened of raising the Fuel Duty because rural voters may be more tempted to abstain from voting or voting for another party in protest. We need more money to fund our public services and part of that extra funding could come from a small rise in Fuel Duty.
I'm glad that the Fuel Duty rise has been cancelled! The money saved I can put towards food and clothing.
Duty on wines, spirits, beer and most ciders has been frozen but "white cider" duty will increase.
As a wine and spirits drinker, I'm happy that the price won't be going up as the result of Government duties.
Cheers! The freeze on alcohol duty should benefit our local pubs.
I don't drink that much but nobody's going to be that unhappy about a duty freeze on alcohol.
My brother drinks white ciders so he's a bit miffed he'll be paying more. I'm glad there isn't going to be an increase on wines but I'll be paying more for my cigarettes.
£2.3bn extra for research and development (Science, Technology, Mathematics and Engineering).
The government wants to support science and technology so I guess this isn't much of a surprise. Whether it should be used to build electric cars or in AI is up for debate. I think the investment amount is too high when schools and hospitals need more funding now.
Britain has always been an innovative country so I'm pleased more money will be used to support projects. 
Where's the extra funding for Primary Schools in Lincoln? Where's the extra funding for SEN support staff for pupils with learning difficulties? What about funding for Arts based R&D? We don't need to fund electric cars when people are shivvering cold on our streets and in their homes. The Government has got its priorities wrong yet again.
£2.3 billion seems a huge amount to waste on “happy go lucky” science projects. We need more investment in apprenticeships and internships to make them more accessible to working class kids. We need to spend more money on improving IT skills for working class employees too!
£385m investment in digital infrastructure. (5G mobile networks and Superfast Broadband).
Digital infrastructure programme do need to be encouraged but was giving 100% business tax relief to digital firms for fibre cabling the way forward? It seems Hammond and May want to appease big business rather than improve the lives of working class Millennials in the countryside. Will the initiatives  be completed by 2020? I'm not convinced.
Digital coverage needs to be vastly improved in Lincolnshire. I need to be able to process orders regularly throughout the day and that means having continuous internet connectivity pretty much 24/7. I doubt McDonnell would have invested in 5G....Labour doesn't seem to have a technology plan....not a workable one anyways.
I can't see why more money needs to be pumped into internet coverage in the countryside. So much has been given already....why can't the telecoms companies stump up more cash?
Great news. I hope Labour supports the funding decision because digital coverage needs to improve in rural areas. It doesn't just help farms and rural based SMEs to connect with their customers faster and more securely but will also allow rural people access to better streaming of films and to listen to podcasts.
£1.5bn to help rectify Universal Credit concerns, 2 weeks of extra Housing Benefit for new UC claimants and access to a 100% advance UC payment within 5 days of applying for UC.
Hammond should have listened to concerns and paused the UC roll-out. Vulnerable people are at risk waiting for the money to come through and an advance needs to be paid back. Now they'll be a 100% advance available next year means that people will need to pay 1 month's worth of money back within a year. If they're not working, how will they do that?
The benefits system needed to be reformed and the Government have been taking action to reform it. If people aren't happy about UC, they should get up in the morning and look for full-time work. Extra Housing Benefit payments will help most people stay in their homes whilst their claim's being processed. The UC benefit is too generous already but the Government wants to please skeptics and have caved in.
It's just not enough money. The Government won't help disabled people or homeless people with such small changes. I want to see the UC scrapped and the Government apologise for wasting money on it.
I think the UC system is a good idea in theory but more work needs to be done to plan its roll-out. Housing Benefit should be covered for the whole period so people are not threatened with eviction. Advance payments are OK in 12 months to pay back if you're working or find work but what if you'll never be able to work? The Government hasn't thought it through enough.
26-30 Railcard Scheme saving a 1/3 on rail fares from Spring 2018.
This is good news for 26-30 year olds who use the train to get to work but I guess that's not many people. We need to reduce rail fares for everyone. What's the Government doing to facilitate that?
I'm not really fussed by this policy and it's just a gimmick to get more young people to vote Conservative.
Rail fares are too high for everyone without a discount railcard because the railways are in the hands of private companies who just want to make more and more profit. Labour would work to renationalise the railways and encourage companies to reduce rail fares quickly following the next election.
I use the rail card at the moment to get to work so the extension will benefit me directly but very few of my friends travel by train to get to work.
£2.8bn to fund the NHS in England over the next 3 years including £338m to help NHS trusts cope this winter
Our NHS needs funding to ensure essential frontline services can be maintained. They asked for £4bn and only got £2.8bn. Where was the money to give our amazing nurses a pay-rise? They did it for prison and police officers!
We can't keep throwing money at NHS managers without expecting them to make their NHS Trusts more efficient. Where's most of the money going? They need to stop paying agency staff and focus on recruiting more permanent staff and if they can't do that then maybe they're in the wrong job.
It seems like the NHS has been given the bare minimum funding it needs to operate. This Government has no idea how to plan for the future of schools or hospitals (only Brexit). There was no money for Social Care either. I thought there would be at least a cap on care costs.
I don't think enough money has been given to the NHS for them to cope with demand. I'm worried that waiting times will increase. My GP surgery's already struggling.
I can understand why nurses are upset about not receiving a pay rise. My friend has had to use a food bank just a week once. It was a humiliating experience for her.
Best Policy
Funding for Maths and Computer Science Teachers
Freeze on Fuel Duty
Funding for Maths and Computer Science Teachers
Funding for Maths and Computer Science Teachers
Worst Policy(set of policies)
Universal Credit
Council Tax Premium increase on empty homes
Brexit funding
Universal Credit
Voting Intention as of 27/11/2017
Labour
Conservatives
Undecided
Lib-Dem

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Free Speech and Political Correctness: Are they really mutually exclusive?

I was speaking with my brother last night on a topic that is being discussed at universities up and down the breadth of the UK: "Is Free Speech in danger of being eroded as a result of Political Correctness?" It's certainly not a new debate but it is one that seems to have lead to division and is at times quite embarrassing to witness. A Newsnight episode last month had a whole segment dedicated to this question, with a specific focus on the "worrying trend" where there is an increasing use of trigger warnings, safe spaces and no-platforming in an attempt to reduce freedom of speech on UK university campuses.Of course it's extremely difficult to cover such topics expansively within a 15 minute window but what was established was that there is a need to clarify for the public the reasons why trigger warnings are used and why safe spaces are established by students and academics and the fact that their existence is not going to completely undermine freedom of speech.

At the same time, the importance of university education needs to be reiterated; free exchange of ideas should be encouraged, texts should not be automatically removed from the degree syllabus just because they could be deemed potentially offensive (although it must be noted that some academics have been accused of designing courses of study which are not truly reflective of diversity and inclusivity which means for example that English Literature students miss out on covering texts which explore a particular social/moral topic). Very few students, graduates, academics and politicians would deny that intellectual rigour needs to be maintained so that students are equipped with the rhetorical tools and critical thinking skills required to express themselves orally and when writing essays/papers in a confident way which can then be transferred into communicating in their personal and professional lives after university. Equally, it's perfectly possible to be politically correct whilst encouraging freedom of expression (which includes free speech); we just have to remember we are all subject to the law and that some forms of expression are made illegal as a result of legislation that has been passed.

The Universities minister, Jo Johnson (brother of Bojo, whose political incorrectness is well, you know, well documented) revealed plans to give the new Office for Students powers to "crack down on safe spaces" and reduce instances of no-platforming. Universities may be "fined, suspended or blacklisted" if they fail to "protect freedom of speech on campuses"( https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/oct/19/ministers-plan-fines-for-universities-which-fail-to-uphold-free-speech). Johnson believes that there are groups of students and academics who are attempting to stifle free speech simply "because they do not agree with them". Johnson should remember that there is an existing legal duty to secure free speech in universities. The 1988 Education Reform Act empowers academic staff to put forward new ideas and controversial opinions, without losing their job. The recent Higher Education and Research Act restates this and as has been pointed out by many academics, defends academics from Brexiteer "McCarthyism" (it's funny how the Tories act as the defenders of free speech yet one of their number thought it was OK to demand the names of academics who teach about Brexit  and the syllabus they provide).

Encouraging debate is important and I certainly want to see people from a diverse range of backgrounds (and political/moral opinions) having the opportunity to thrive and engage in an open, frank and creative environment whilst attending university. When I was an English and Philosophy student at the University of York I was a member of the New Generation Society (from 2007 till 2010). The society had members  from across the political spectrum, debating openly and frankly in the hope of developing new solutions to current political, cultural, moral and societal issues. The hope was that NGS would help reconnect young people of my generation with politics, encouraging them to participate in elections (http://newgenerationsociety.com/news/). I remember there were a number of eye-brow raising, thought-provoking conversations surrounding the UK's relationship with the EU, Housing and State vs Private/Public School education (issues that now have come to the fore) and it's true to say that I found some of the NGS members' views backward and antiquated: there was one member who called himself a staunch Classic Tory and claimed that there were far too many state school students at university which made him feel "uncomfortable" about the future direction of the country (it was becoming "too socially liberal" for him to tolerate) but suffice to say I gave him short shrift after informing him of my academic credentials and where I gained them from...The Priory LSST (now part of the Priory Academies chain. I imagine there were probably more than a few NGS members and guests who felt unnerved at my presence and talking openly about my intersectional feminist values, equality and inclusivity (one was shocked when I declared that the voting age should be lowered to 16 and now all major parties except for the Conservatives (and UKIP but then they aren't anywhere near to achieving major status anymore) have signed up to lowering the voting age #LiberalProgress).  I even managed to deliver my own speech on 21st century Intersectional Feminism, with people coming in who were not even members of NGS to listen to me speak and to debate the importance of feminism in politics. It gave me a great sense of achievement and empowered me to become more vocal about issues that really mattered to me and still matter to me today. I would be very sad to see political debating societies becoming less prevalent on campuses, especially as I think there is a real need for more non-partisan political debating societies on campuses. Yet I remain convinced that free speech is not so "under-threat" as is being reported in right-wing mainstream media newspapers and on political debate shows such as Newsnight that non-partisan university societies would be censored or banned (entirely ludicrous to suggest that such a situation is anywhere near to becoming reality) and that  university societies across the UK continue to play a vital role in advancing and protecting free speech. 

That being said, there are those on the left as well as the right who state openly that they are genuinely concerned that free speech is being curtailed in favour of increasing political correctness. Spiked's "Free Speech University Rankings" reports have been published since 2015 and rate University administration teams and Student Unions based on a "traffic-light ranking system": Green means that freedom of expression isn't restricted unless it is "unlawful", Amber means that a university has issued guidance to ensure the tone of expression is "appropriate" (Spiked argues that the content of the expression itself isn't unlawful but would be deemed offensive) and Red means that a university is openly hostile to freedom of expression, "banning specific ideologies, political affiliations, beliefs, books or speakers" (http://www.spiked-online.com/free-speech-university-rankings/how-we-rank#.WejDqVRSxdg). The University of York has been given an Amber rating for 2017, with Spiked claiming that the University's policy on Sexual Harassment leads to a curtailing of freedom of expression; I'm sorry but I agreed with the University of York introducing consent classes in 2014 and believe that all students should attend; the Independent quite rightly pointed out that consent classes help to "debunk myths surrounding rape, deconstruct the impact of hyper-masculinity on all genders" and ensures students don't "shame peers for their sexual preferences or sexual activity" (http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/sexual-consent-classes-at-universities-are-not-patronising-a7341031.html). Shame that Spiked cannot see the value of such classes in reducing rates of discrimination and equipping them with the knowledge needed to feel empowered to say "No" and report sexual harassers. Mind you, the University of Lincoln got a Red rating because they have a "No-Platforming policy" and shock horror, an Equal Opportunities one too. You can tell from Spiked's analysis they are not happy about such policies being in place (http://www.spiked-online.com/free-speech-university-rankings/analysis#.WejHCVRSxdg) but if they help students, academics and others to know when to call out direct and indirect discrimination as and when it happens, then I'm "Sorry, Not Sorry" that the university has one.

No-Platforming and Trigger Warnings: 

Let's tackle the issue of no-platforming. How prevalent is it in 2017? No study has been conducted to tot up the total number of speakers no-platformed at British universities but the mainstream journos certainly want people to feel that it is widespread. What about support for no-platforming policies? Is that widespread? Well, a ComRes poll conducted by the BBC Victoria Derbyshire programme in April 2016 found that 63% of 1,001 respondents were in favour of the National Union of Students (NUS) putting a "no-platforming" policy in place to protect universities from having to host prescribed speakers. 54% of respondents to the survey also stated that the NUS were right to ban individual speakers who would threaten a safe space. Interestingly, 29% of Russell Group university students polled argued that the policy "had gone too far" (http://www.comresglobal.com/polls/bbc-victoria-derbyshire-no-platform-poll/). There are a few things to point out with regards to the NUS no-platforming policy. Firstly, the policy concept isn't new; a NUS no platform policy has been in place since 1974 and is designed to ensure that no prescribed organisations or individuals that are known to hold racist or fascist views can speak at universities. Secondly, the policy is voted on every year by legitimate delegates to the annual National Conference. Thirdly, there happens to be only 6 (yes 6) organisations that are banned nationally (Al-Muhajiroun; British National Party (BNP); English Defence League (EDL); Hizb-ut-Tahir; Muslim Public Affairs Committee; and National Action according to https://nusdigital.s3-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/document/documents/31475/NUS_No_Platform_Policy_information_.pdf?AWSAccessKeyId=AKIAJKEA56ZWKFU6MHNQ&Expires=1508542364&Signature=oEuUkLrMVc%2FP%2BlwHBAKWfSP6Sl4%3D). Fourthly, individual university student unions have the right to create their own no-platforming policy but it must adhere to NUS guidelines (i.e. no university could ask a member of the BNP to speak without breaking the national policy). Fifthly, student union bodies are private bodies and thus can refuse to host a speaker if they deem that they are a threat to safety. Sixthly, the decision of a SU to no-platform does not contravene the Education Act 1986 (does not apply to SUs as autonomous bodies). Even if speakers are not happy about being no-platformed, the university administration cannot intervene because the SU is an autonomous body; the SU will have made a democratic decision to disinvite and even if some members disagreed with that decision, it is extremely unlikely such a decision will be overturned. Even if a speaker has been disinvited by the SU, they may still be invited to speak, either in the street or at a venue not used by the SU.

I think it is very important to state that nobody, not me, not Bojo, not Germaine Greer or even Queen Elizabeth II herself has an automatic right to a speech platform that hasn't been crafted or administered by ourselves. My blog is a speech platform (and one that I am very glad to have) but I can't go around demanding that I have access to other platforms that I haven't had any hand in creating or administering; I don't have an automatic right to write content for LabourList or Huffington Post, for example. To be invited to write a blog post for a popular opinion site or be invited to give a lecture or take part in a university society debate is an honour and a privilege but one is not entitled to demand such a platform regardless of how successful one is as a opinion ed writer, academic etc. There will undoubtedly be instances when a speaker is disinvited from participating in a debate or delivering a lecture because of comments/views they may hold or maybe even ones they have previously held. It may be upsetting for the person involved that a society or university department makes the decision that an event should not go ahead but free speech advocates  need to stop acting as if it's the end of the world. Even when there is a campaign against a speech going ahead, it may go ahead anyways. In Greer's case, the campaign led by Rachael Melhusiah didn't actually stop Greer from delivering her lecture at Cardiff University (and yes, as expected it was full of transphobia....https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/nov/18/transgender-activists-protest-germaine-greer-lecture-cardiff-university). I very much doubt that Ms Greer would have modified her transphobic views as a result of her not being allowed to openly speak anyways.

What I also believe is important to remember is that Universities do have a clear duty under the Equality Act 2010 (Public Sector Equality Duty) to encourage tolerance and respect towards people who possess one or more of the protected characteristics under the EA and that includes those who intend, are or have been through Gender Reassignment and those who are perceived as going through Gender Reassignment (see for example https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/hr/equality/equalityduty). Discrimination against trans (and non-binary, gender-fluid, genderqueer and agender) people in public spaces such as universities is unacceptable. Misgendering is a form of direct discrimination against trans people, no matter how some (trans-exclusionary) radical feminists may want to dress  their utterances up in the guise of "free speech"or claim that biology trumps everything else (psychology is an important science too, you know). Greer may be a celebrated second wave feminist but if trans activists and students felt that their university platform was being used to disseminate hate speech, then they were perfectly entitled to use their freedom of expression to protest against Greer's lecture. Jo Johnson, of course defended Greer, stating that it was "preposterous" for her to banned from speaking, yet would I suspect would react quite differently if a Neo-Nazi had been no-platformed by a university (at least he would agree allowing such a person to speak would not be legitimate and in fact the NUS agree on that point as pointed out earlier). It's alright to be a free speech advocate but let's not pretend that having unfettered free speech would be a good thing (or would be practical).

Often no-platforming has been intrinsically connected with the concept of "political correctness"(PC). Political correctness has been described as "language, policies or measures that are intended to avoid offense or disadvantage to members of particular groups in society" (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Political_correctness). I've discussed political correctness in a number of my blog posts and what seems clear to me is that those who seem to be against PC altogether are seemingly annoyed that they are not allowed to be openly offensive in public on a regular basis anymore for fear of being rightly called out for it. Equally, conservatives can indulge in political correctness of their own. Alex Nowrasteh calls the right's version of PC in the US "patriotic correctness" and cites the example of reactions to Colin Kaepernick taking the knee instead of standing for the US National Anthem to illustrate this: (https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/12/07/the-right-has-its-own-version-of-political-correctness-its-just-as-stifling/?utm_term=.9314f67b0e68). Conservatives in the UK are not happy about the emergence of the White Poppy or people choosing not to wear a Red poppy for personal reasons (Jon Snow was pilloried for stating he wouldn't wear a Red poppy because he doesn't wear any symbol on his clothing) to remember the War dead. No-platforming may be done for supposedly PC reasons but as I've discussed above, are those PC reasons necessarily bad?

Students have been grappling with the dilemma of instituting no-platform policies for supposedly "PC reasons" for many years. The views of students in 2017 are just as diverse as the views that existed back in 2007. The Guardian asked a number of students to weigh in on the topic (https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/oct/26/do-no-platform-policies-threaten-free-speech-at-uni-students-share-their-views) and I have to say that I agree with Lucas North that there are trans students who do feel they can't speak out against transphobes like Greer because they fear being ridiculed and misgendered by radical feminists and social conservatives. I can understand David Troy's suggestion that students, including trans ones should be equipped with the intellectual rigour to challenge transphobes but that does not mean that LGBTQ+ societies should feel mandated to consider inviting transphobes into the safe space of an LGBTQ+ society to "build resilience". Guo Sheng Liu makes a good point when stating that "there is no need to "test ideas that encourage discrimination, nor "expose" transparent prejudices"-i.e. when the discriminatory language against trans people has been prevalent for decades, there's no need to give an extra platform to them. I equally agree with Josh Salisbury that the obsessive focus on students regarding no-platforming is unwarranted and points out that the Government's Prevent Agenda can be seen to undermine free speech (The Just Yorkshire report found that Muslim academics and students felt the Prevent scheme was "fostering a policing culture in higher education" and that Prevent Officers had "disrupted or closed down events about Islamophobia or terrorism that had been organised by academics and campaigners" https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/aug/29/prevent-scheme-fosters-fear-and-censorship-at-universities-just-yorkshire). Clare Patterson makes a very important point and I share her suspicion that "those in power feel uncomfortable seeing that students from marginalised backgrounds can actually have power". Students have the right to speak out against speakers who seek to engrain prejudice further, regardless of their social background and if a large number of students decide to come together to block a speaker from attending their university, then there is little can be done by the speaker.

Trigger Warnings:

Let's turn quickly to all the hoohah regarding Trigger warnings. Trigger warnings are appropriate sometimes. They are already commonly used by mainstream media outlets to tell viewers when distressing images or video may be shown or when potentially offensive language is being used. Such warnings are accepted without free speech advocates throwing their toys out the pram crying censorship. It's also important to recognise that trigger warnings do NOT censor speech; they merely "create an alert about content in the discussion that could prompt traumatic memories if a person happened to experience something related in the past" (http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/university-of-chicago-trigger-warning_us_57bf16d9e4b085c1ff28176d). Erin Weinberg argues that those who assume trigger warnings are overprotective "invalidate the struggles of those who have survived some of the worst possible experiences (rape, child sexual exploitation), yet still have the resilience to pursue higher education" (https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/education/2017/10/why-it-s-right-titus-andronicus-come-trigger-warning).

When I studied Titus Andronicus on my English Literature course at York in the first term there were no trigger warnings offered and nobody in my seminar group were averse to discussing the play but I agree that triggers can be more serious than just "politely muted tears" and warning students in advance of covering a play such as Titus Andronicus is sensible and respectful as it allows students "time to prepare by experiencing (these) genuine responses...safe from inquiring looks and questions from peers" (https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/education/2017/10/why-it-s-right-titus-andronicus-come-trigger-warning). 

Freedom of speech has its limitations: 

Commentators who disagree with the enforcement of no-platforming policies may often make a veiled reference to the Human Rights Act (HRA) 1998 as a way of defending their right to freedom of expression. Under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948 (and further enshrined in law as Article 10 of the HRA 1998), people resident in the UK have the right to express themselves freely; this includes "the freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without State interference" (https://www.liberty-human-rights.org.uk/human-rights/what-are-human-rights/human-rights-act/article-10-freedom-expression). Political, artistic and commercial expression are indeed included within this definition. However, Article 10 is a "qualified right"; what this means is that there is are limits placed on our  freedom of expression:
  • when such expression is prescribed by law
  • when it is necessary and proportionate
  • in the interests of "national security, territorial integrity or public safety"
  • to prevent crime
  • to protect the health or morals of the nation
  • to protect the reputation or rights of others
  • when information is classified as confidential (Data Protection Act 1998)
  • to protect and maintain "the authority and impartiality of the judiciary".
It is ludicrous for any person to declare therefore that we have (or should have) an absolute right to freedom of speech without consequences. You may think you have the right to make a statement declaring that x group of people are the "scum of the earth" but that does not mean you have the right to be protected from the consequences of making that comment, whether those consequences are that people are offended or that people get offended and the speech is considered illegal (speech is considered illegal in the UK if it incites hatred towards a group of people based on their skin colour, race, nationality or ethnic origins which leads to discrimination and violence as defined by the Public Order Act 1986, Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 and The Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008). Nobody is immune from critique and that includes critique of historical statements someone has made, whether they are made in an oral or written form.

Another element of the free speech debate concerns how legislation may affect the right to protest. Liberty, a pro civil liberties and pro human rights organisation in the UK is concerned about legislation that can lead to arrest for offensive speech. For example, they point out that Section 4A of the Public Order Act "makes it an offence for a person to use threatening or abusive words or behaviour that causes, or is likely, to cause another person harassment, alarm or distress" (https://www.liberty-human-rights.org.uk/human-rights/free-speech-and-protest/speech-offences) and that Section 4A can be used by organisations and groups against peaceful protesters to silence them or can lead to extremist organisations gaining more exposure for their views. Anyone convicted under Section 4A can be given a fine of up to £5,000 and be imprisoned for up to 6 months. I believe that Section 4A is important to apply in cases for example where a person has the intent to threaten, abuse or throw insults at the same person but peaceful protestors who refrain from using threatening and abusive language whilst they protest should be able to avoid the danger of facing the Section 4A charge. That isn't censorship; it's common decency.

Equally Liberty mention an issue with Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 which "makes it an offence to send a message by means of a public electronic communications network which is grossly offensive, or of an indecent, obscene or offensive nature", in which they say that what is considered "grossly offensive" can be interpreted broadly and tweets that are made "jovially" or satirically have been judged as constituting an offense under this Section. Now, it's important I think to ensure that any tweets that contain death threats, threats of violence or continual harassment are dealt with (by Twitter removing the content and by the person receiving such tweets on a regular basis reporting the tweets to the police). Satirical or "jovial" tweets can be difficult to judge, especially if there is an intent to offend (as is often the case). Yet Section 127 has even been used to convict a young man venting his frustration about not being able to meet with his girlfriend because of the airport being closed (the Judge had decided there may have been an intent to carry out the action described in the tweets) but this conviction was overturned on the basis that there had been a misjudgement about intent. This example demonstrates  that tweets can be misinterpreted and what one person might judge as being "funny" will not be funny to others. I do not think the example means that the Communications Act should be dispensed with, though.

Freedom of speech, Political Correctness and Public Figures: 

We usually require high standards of moral behaviour from public figures and that includes potential, current and ex political figures. When considering making a statement on a particular social or moral/cultural issue, politicians need to navigate the rhetorical waters so they conduct themselves in a way that respects their political office and does not bring politics as a whole into disrepute. Personally, I would say that means that MPs need to abide by the principles enshrined in the Equality Act and do not make inflammatory and discriminatory comments that are aimed to increase prejudice against minority groups or groups that share a protected characteristic. David Davies, MP for Monmouth for example, wrote a newspaper article back in August in the South Wales Angus to misgender trans women in particular; refusing to use the correct pronouns for trans women may seem trivial to people like Mr Davies but to trans people, such deliberate misgendering is an attempt to delegitimise their gender. It's rather interesting that Mr Davies stated in the article that he knew that he'd be seen to be "on the wrong side of history" and "bigoted" (yes, he got that right) but in terms of the supposed free speech vs political correctness debate, I'd say that he was guilty of  refusing to adhere to the Equality Act and as someone who believes that the Equality Act needs to be respected to foster an environment of inclusion, his comments fell short of what I'd expect from a politician. For others (radical feminists and social conservatives), Davies' comments will be seen as "perfectly legitimate" and a demonstration of free speech in action, something to be celebrated because being "non PC" seems to mean it's ok to be discriminatory towards trans, non-binary, genderfluid, genderqueer and agender constituents. Hateful comments towards LGBTQ+ people have been made by those on the right of British politics for eons; the DUP's Ian Paisley Jnr being "repulsed by gay and lesbianism" (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jul/27/lgbtq-partial-decriminalisation-homosexuality-gay-trans) one of the most quoted examples. That being said, there are instances where derogatory comments against LGBTQIA+ people by politicians can lead to them being forced to reconsider their political careers. Andrew Turner, the former Tory MP for the Isle of Wight was forced to end his re-election bid in April when he brazenly told school students that "homosexuality is dangerous to society". Jared O' Mara has been suspended from the Labour party for allegedly making misogynistic and transphobic comments towards Sophie Evans, at his nightclub in Sheffield. He had previously resigned from the Women and Equalities Committee for making a series of misogynistic and homophobic comments from 2002 onwards (I don't feel the need to repeat them in this blogpost but some examples can be found here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/10/24/jared-omara-refuses-resign-sexist-comments-suggests-conservatives/ and here http://uk.businessinsider.com/jared-omara-list-of-labour-mp-lewd-online-comments-2017-10).Good that both of them were forced to face the consequences of their utterances. There should be no room in progressive politics for homophobic, biphobic and transphobic comments and such comments should be rightly condemned. Sending a clear message that there are some comments that should not be uttered in day-to-day common parlance should not be seen as "PC gone mad" but rather demonstrating that we are striving for a more equal, inclusive and compassionate society.

People considering running for public office or even to be a campaigner or activist for their local area should aim to treat people with respect and dignity, regardless of their own cultural, social, moral/ethical and political views and adhere to the principles of the Equality Act. Never be afraid to be forthright but do so intelligently, thoughtfully and respectfully, face-to-face and online. And if the person has been disparaging online or in person in the past, admit your mistakes and present a plan as to how to stop others from making them A sense of political correctness that grounds itself in respect and compassion should not be one that is disparaged and should not be seen as mutually exclusive of free speech; in fact it should be praised and encouraged. Perhaps we need to get back to saying we "agree to disagree" a bit more but as stated above, I believe as a society we must be prepared to take action when free speech crosses the line. That includes misogynistic, homophobic, biphobic, ableist and yes, transphobic comments too.

Another aspect of the conversation is to accept that people from marginalised backgrounds can make comments that offend others on a grand scale but often face a vile response that attacks them on the basis of their protected characteristic. When Munroe Bergdorf made her controversial comments in a Facebook post about white people, stating that the power they hold was inherited and that racism was not learned , this led to her being dropped from L'Oreal and a huge backlash by white people, including Bergdorf's own mother. Now it's OK for people to be vocal about their disagreement with Berdorf on her views about racism, it certainly was NOT acceptable for trolls on social media to send Bergdorf death threats, threats of rape or assault.  It's also important to note that whilst Bergdorf's comments were classified by Facebook as "hate speech" and was deleted but the racist, homophobic and transphobic comments were left on (https://www.theguardian.com/global/2017/sep/04/munroe-bergdorf-on-the-loreal-racism-row-it-puzzles-me-that-my-views-are-considered-extreme). This is quite clearly indefensible on Facebook's part because there is no way that racist, homophobic and transphobic comments can not be considered hate speech. Policies and procedures that have been put in place by social media organisations to tackle hate speech  should be applied consistently across the board, otherwise what is the point in actually having them? There is a question as to whether those who are making the decisions regarding social media posts can ever be truly independent and free from bias but the same could be said for anyone; we all have our biases that will impact on the statements that we utter/write but it's OK to have those biases challenged in a respectful manner. Activists like Bergdorf know when they write a post, they may be challenged on it: "being an activist means calling people out, not just saying what everyone else is saying and what everyone else wants to think and upholding the common consensus". They share the desire to be free to say what they think and are aware of the potential consequences but with the hope that life will be better in the future for themselves and more crucially, for others. Freedom of speech can be used to foster a more inclusive and "woke" society and sometimes this may mean not being "politically correct".

Conclusion:

It's impossible to encompass a discussion of the relationship between the concepts of free speech and political correctness in just one blogpost. What is clear is that there are many different facets to the debate to consider. Whilst it is right that our universities should be a haven of expressing ideas and that the ability to debate should remain an integral part of the structure of arts and science degree courses, we also should accept that outside of the lecture hall and seminar room, in Student Unions across the country, students have the right to invite and disinvite speakers in accordance with the wishes of Student Union members and the policies and procedures devised both at a national level by the NUS and by each individual Student Union. It should be recognised that the limits to free speech defined within the HRA are designed to protect residents of the UK from hearing hate discourse that may incite violence towards them in their public spaces and that the HRA does not provide speakers with the automatic right to a platform. That means that whilst speakers can express their disappointment at being disinvited from giving a speech at at university by faculty members or by the Students Union (depending on who organised the event) it still does not mean that they have curtailed free speech; after all the speaker could also try and organise the event in a different location. The example of Mr Turner also demonstrates that political correctness, when it relates to helping to protect UK residents (not just British citizens) from discrimination and prejudice and encouraging others to treat people different from themselves with compassion, respect and dignity by calling out deviant free speech acts is vital for combating discriminatory hate speech and reminds us that there is no such idea as there being complete freedom of speech in our democracy without consequences. Free speech is an act and it is one that must be performed with the knowledge that performing that act may lead to negative consequences. Nobody regardless of their position in society should be free not to think of such considerations. The fact we are continuing to have conversations and negotiate our way through balancing free speech considerations with minimising harm is a positive step forward. As Alison Scott-Baumann pointed out in her excellent opinion-ed for The Guardian: "we cannot switch freedom of speech on and off as if it were an app, but we can learn to balance individuals' rights to freedom of expression and freedom of harm in an ongoing conversation" (https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2017/oct/25/no-platform-and-safe-spaces-arent-the-real-dangers-to-freedom-of-speech). We need to continue those conversations, with people of different political persuasions and beliefs but let's be realistic about the restrictions that are placed on free speech in the UK and the positive reasons for those restrictions within public spaces. 

Thursday, 12 October 2017

My Thoughts on the Conservative Party Autumn Conference 2017 Policy Announcements: Policy Mediocrity Klaxon

I have to start this blogpost on a positive note, by focussing on PM May's keynote speech first. Because yes, for me, it was possibly the only speech at the Tory Conference that filled me with any kind of optimism.....for a future (a "British Dream") that centers itself on being modern and compassionate....a future that I believe does NOT have the current crop of senior Tory MPs at its helm. I would say I would have been surprised by all the Corbyn bashing, Momentum bashing, youth bashing (because according to the Tories, a young person is now anyone under the age of 45....super LOL), working class centre left wing bashing, working class centre bashing and the distinct lack of any rad policies with clout that will truly transform the lives of working class disabled young people like me (well the fact that the Tories don't even want to discuss the 60 recommendations made by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Report is a big giveaway that Tories don't really care much about disabled people who unfortunately find themselves unable to get a job or unable to work because of their condition) but to be perfectly honest, I wasn't.

 Unlike Labour's conference, where activists from across the party (Labour First, Progress, Momentum) genuinely waited with interest to hear Corbyn speak (regardless of their views as to Corbyn's future electability and/or policies RE renationalisation and Brexit),  the anticipation for PM May's speech was rather muted in comparison to the "buzz" that surrounded Bojo with the Barbarian Hair's speech in the conference venue in Manchester only the day before. PM May knew that a confident delivery of her keynote speech would be the best way of convincing the party faithful to remain loyal to her vision for Britain's future and to try and convince sceptical swing voters to listen to her vision and pay attention to the policy platform she offers. What transpired was a speech with a series of unfortunate events and blunders that even a political satirist  like Armando Iannucci or Aaron Sorkin couldn't have dreamt up. Yes, it really was that bad.

To PM May's credit, she had the courage and strength of her convictions to battle through the speech despite being plagued by a rather persistent cough, a ridiculously timed stunt by a comedian who, let's face it, is famous for dead-panned comedic timing (at least he didn't send a P45 addressed to her from THE Lord Buckethead demanding her Maidenhead seat to begin their maniacal conquest I suppose) and a hostile audience at home and in the conference hall who remain unconvinced that PM May's the person to lead the Tory party and the country going forward following the Brexit negotiations. Almost everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. PM May's new signage containing the predictable new slogan "Building a country that works for everyone"disintegrated whilst at the same time her vision was failing to cut through to swing voters such as myself.  Even the quip about  Chancellor Hammond handing out "something for free for once" after he gave her a cough sweet fell flat. But whatever you may think of PM May's policies (and I certainly have been extremely critical of the majority of them in the past and remain so), you cannot dehumanise her by  blaming her for elements of the speech that were beyond her control. There's no way she could have known for sure that her cough would be so persistent it would affect the tone and pitch of her voice. Yes there could have been actions PM May could have taken to try and relieve her symptoms but perhaps beforehand she had felt the cough wouldn't be such a disruptive factor. PM May could not have stopped the "comedian" getting through the extremely stringent security checks system and handing her the fake P45. PM May equally could not have stopped the signage falling apart. PM May battled on and managed to complete her speech despite all of these external factors and she should quite rightly be given credit for that. The "Keep Calm and Carry On" approach is one that I would have taken. It's what many of us who call ourselves determined people who are passionate about our own ideas and beliefs would have done. That's why I believe that critique of the speech should really focus on the policy announcements made, rather than focussing on signage malfunctions and Bojo P45 craziness. If Jeremy Corbyn had been the victim of such a disastrous set of events, I have no doubt that Fartage, Bojo et al would have immediately seized upon the incident as an opportunity to discredit him, calling him "incompetent" or "incapable" or mocking Labour security officials for failing to keep Corbyn safe. I wonder whether Corbyn would have been critiqued as much as PM May for wearing a Winston Churchill brooch on his lapel (would it have been an indication of him betraying his socialist values?) There was so much critique of PM May wearing a Frida Kahlo bracelet, not least from left-leaning commentators who accused May of lacking awareness of Kahlo's own political beliefs. Yes Kahlo was a staunch Communist who had an affair with Leon Trotsky and then decided to disown his political ideas because they were not radical enough and then went on to endorse Joseph Stalin's views towards the end of her life. Was PM May aware of such facts when she decided to wear the bracelet? Or did she wear the bracelet because she admired Kahlo's self-portraits and identified with her determination to fight passionately for a vision that she believed in?

I suppose Kahlo would have been horrified that a Conservative would have dared to use her image in such a public way. Yet the image and work of artists such as Kahlo have been through what Deborah Shaw calls "a process of cultural transformation and commodification" (http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/theresa-may-frida-kahlo-bracelet-communism-trotsky-stalin-commodification-a7988146.html) to the extent that Kahlo has now become iconic for reasons beyond her political views. Shaw contends that "Kahlo has been transformed to make her less threatening to Western capitalist belief systems", so that art collectors and producers and buyers of merchandise such as the bracelet feel they can identify personally with their understanding of Kahlo's life story. Kahlo certainly did experience pain in her life as Shaw points out and perhaps that's the main reason why PM May identifies with Kahlo's oeuvre. Still, regardless of all that, PM May would still be allowed to wear the bracelet because we have the right to freedom of expression with certain limitations (e.g. it prescribed by law) as detailed in Article 10 of the Human Rights Act 1998 (if only PM May would now stand up strongly for the HRA rather than try to undermine it I'd be a happy politico!) Equally, I expect that most of us are guilty of consuming some form of cultural commodification. I'm also pretty sure there is at least one artist, musician, poet or playwright who may have had different political views from ourselves; Aphra Behn for example, was a staunch Tory who supported King James II and disapproved of the Glorious Revolution and the Whigs who helped instigate it. That doesn't stop me from admiring her plays or praising her for being a sassy person who fought against convention to carve a reputation out for herself (ironically by erasing large elements of her past). There are Morrissey lovers who are Labour and Green supporters who abhore his UKIP sympathies and xenophobic views. If we attack someone for a bracelet they choose to wear because it's "unexpected", we may be conveniently forgetting our own hypocrisy. Do we always know absolutely everything we need to know about our hero/heroes' political views? Without having done massive research into their lives (e.g. close reading of their autobiography or biographies) we often only have a vague awareness of their political views and that's even if they choose to speak out or have spoken out on a topic/topics in the past. The personal may indeed be political these days but do we really advance political debate by minute analysis of perceived political symbols and slogans rather than analysing and debating in a political speech what really will have an impact on our lives and the lives of our family, friends, neighbours and colleagues- the policy platform? 

PM May's speech (and the conference as a whole) wasn't devoid of policy announcements but in my opinion they were sparse and I must say, a bit tame:
  • We now know that the Government intends to "build a country that works for everyone", including investing £2bn to build 25,000 new affordable council houses and affordable homes for rent by 2022 (5,000 a year) as a starting point for a new housing revolution. The typical subsidy has been determined at £80,000 to reach the figure of 25,000. Suffice to say that the plan won't do much to help; 1.2m families are waiting to be housed by councils. The National Housing Federation tried to put a positive spin on the announcement, saying that the investment announcement may unlock an extra £3bn in public and private investment  which may increase the number of homes built to between 50,000 and 60,000 but only if more public land is opened up for development. I agree with Labour; the Tories are offering to build a paltry amount of social housing (Labour pledged to build 100,000 new homes that were "genuinely affordable" in their first term in office) and it won't help many families in areas where rent prices are high. Lord Porter, Conservative chair of the Local Government Association has argued that current restrictions on council borrowing for council housing projects needs to be lifted in addition to keeping "100% of right-to-buy receipts to replace sold homes, certainty over future rents, powers to make sure developers build approved homes in a timely fashion, and adequately funded planning departments so that they can cover the cost of processing applications" (https://www.theguardian.com/politics/blog/live/2017/oct/04/conservative-conference-2017-theresa-may-to-announce-council-house-building-programme-politics-live?page=with:block-59d4de9de4b00dc5a61c2652#liveblog-navigation). 
  • PM May announced an independent review into the Mental Health Act 1983 which will be chaired by Professor Simon Wessely (former President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists). This review will examine how current use of the legislation (the document supplied the Department of Health accepts that there are concerns about "rising rates of detention", the fact that "detention may be used to detain rather than treat", "the disproportionate number of people from black and minority ethnicities being detained" and "questions about the effectiveness of community treatment orders and difficulties in getting discharged" (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/mental-health-act-independent-review/terms-of-reference-independent-review-of-the-mental-health-act-1983). An interim report is expected to by delivered in early 2018 and the final report, with recommendations being released by autumn 2018). Centre for Mental Health has welcomed the announcement, but want the review to be extensive and "look at every aspect of the Act and explore not just the legislation but the context in which it is used" (https://www.centreformentalhealth.org.uk/news/centre-for-mental-health-welcomes-independent-review-of-mental-health-act-announced-by-the-prime-minister-today). It's rather interesting to note that the Conservative manifesto pledged to scrap and replace the Mental Health Act 1983: "the party will reform laws to ensure those with mental illness are treated fairly and employers fulfil their responsibilities effectively and will introduce a new Mental Health Bill putting parity of esteem at the heart of treatment" (p57) so I wonder if the review is the first step in this process or designed to pacify those in the party who want more information before scrapping the Mental Health Act. Mind had asked for a review of the Act before the manifesto commitment was made because they said that a rise in detentions "could be a sign of growing pressure on mental health services" (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-39832997). 
  • PM May, channeling Corbyn's policy (or perhaps in response to the excellent Daily Mirror campaign) on organ donations, announced that everyone will automatically become an organ donor unless they join the opt-out register in order to help the more than 5,000 people on the organ transplant waiting list (this is known as a presumed consent system). As I mentioned in a previous blogpost, as a Christian I believe that organ donation is one way of performing a selfless act of compassion and I haven't heard from many people who would want to sign the opt-out register. It's good to see at least a level of consensus on such an important issue and demonstrates that PM May's speech did have a good policy announcement in it, even if it wasn't an original one. 
  • PM May declared that free schools will continue to be built under her Government, repeating her election promise to built 100 new free schools a year. PM May said that this wasn't an "ideological decision" but the National Education Union disagreed, saying that the free schools policy "is highly centralised, unaccountable, bureaucratic and ultimately ineffective" (https://www.fenews.co.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=14802:national-education-union-comment-on-increase-in-new-free-schools&catid=14:sector-news&Itemid=880). The Free Schools policy has not delivered the number of secondary school places needed (125,000 children face missing out on a place by 2022/23) and 19 free schools have closed since the programme began. Equally the proportion of free schools rated as Good or Outstanding by Ofsted is lower than in state schools (85% versus 89%) and the rate of schools that have been deemed "Inadequate" by Ofsted is at 4%, double the state school rate (https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-views/governments-manipulation-data-free-schools-shameless). 
Some words and phrases in the speech were surprising coming from a Conservative; for example, PM May called the NHS "the very essence of our solidarity in the United Kingdom". Solidarity isn't a word that you often hear a Tory minister, let alone the PM, say. It sounds too "comradey" or "leftie" for some. It rather adds to the irony that PM May claimed it was the Tories who have invested the most in the NHS and upheld its principles "through more years in government than any other". Yet it was the Tories who helped pushed through the ill thought out Health and Social Care Act 2012, it's the Tories who are starving NHS trusts of funding which is leading to some of them ending up in special financial measures (such as my local United Lincolnshire Hospitals Trust) and Clinical Commissioning Groups closing down successful Walk-In-Centres such as the one in Lincoln under the guise of "efficiency savings" and "fairness". It is the Tories who scrapped the nursing bursaries, imposed an unwanted change in Junior Doctors' contracts and imposed the freeze and then the 1% pay cap on health professionals believing that they were necessary to reduce and then eliminate the deficit; latest figures suggest the deficit is at £5.7bn in August, down 18% on August 2016 (https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/sep/21/uk-budget-deficit-philip-hammond-gdp-august but we are nowhere near getting the defecit down to 0). PM May may thank NHS professionals for their dedication but she has done very little to improve the lives of nurses in my local area; so much so one of them decided to run for parliamentary office and eventually became our constituency MP, Karen Lee.

Policies announced at the Tory Autumn Conference:

The problems of relatability and of a bold (dare I say radical) policy platform dogged this Tory Conference. It seemed as if the speeches were geared more towards trying to placate the party faithful rather than to appeal to the additional voters the Tories desperately need to get on board if they are to have any chance of regaining marginal seats such as Lincoln at the next general election.
Here's some of the key policies that I took notice of:

Education:
A review has been announced into "university funding and student financing" but in the meantime plans to raise student fees have been scrapped and instead the maximum amount chargeable has been  frozen for the 2018/19 academic year. The income threshold for student loan repayments will be raised from £21,000 to £25,000, which will apparently save some students on average £360 a year. The student loan reimbursement pilot scheme for science and modern foreign language teachers in the early years of their career in areas of the country where there is a chronic shortage (such as the North East) could provide some incentive for MFL graduates in particular to consider a career in teaching and it's estimated that a teacher in the 5th year of the scheme would save £540 (http://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/news/north-east-news/here-policies-announced-conservative-conference-13702320) but the Government really needs to start promoting the value of students learning a MFL in a post-Brexit world. The Government also wants to increase the recruitment of maths teachers and have announced that they would pay maths graduates a £20,000 lump-sum when they become a teacher and a £5,000 retention payment in the 3rd and 5th year of teaching. Finally, schools who find it difficult to recruit and retain teachers would be able to access a £30m fund focussed on providing the money needed for Continuing Professional Development training.

I'd have much rather have seen a commitment to freezing or reducing interest rates on student loan debt for ALL students or have seen a crystal clear commitment to reintroducing university maintenance grants for students from disadvantaged backgrounds to help them with the cost of books, equipment, clothing and rent but perhaps this will be announced in next month's Budget (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/maintenance-grants-government-uturn-bring-back-poorer-students-education-justine-greening-university-a7981976.html) Time will tell.

Housing:
£10bn will be invested in the Help to Buy Scheme (where you only need a 5% deposit to access a mortgage for a newly built home because the Government provides a low-interest equity loan which is 40% of the value of the home in London and 20% elsewhere) which will help an estimated 135,000 people to get on the property ladder. Liam Halligan in The Sun has already attacked this policy, stating that Help to Buy helps "stoke up demand" without addressing supply issues, only really benefits unscrupulous housing developers and is also "very difficult to access", meaning that young people are forced to pay a higher rent in high-demand areas. Halligan rightly argues that more social housing needs to be built to meet the growing demand: "If the UK is to build the 250,000 new homes needed each year, that needs to include 50,000 to 100,000 units of social housing, required each year".

With regards to tenants, the Tories will require every landlord to be part of an ombudsman redress scheme, designed to give tenants access to an effective conflict-resolution mechanism. As programmes such as "The Week The Landlords Moved In" and Nightmare Tenants, Slum Landlords" have demonstrated, landlords do need to make sure they are fulfilling their legal obligations so that the housing stock they provide is fit for human habitation and allow tenants to challenge fees. A mechanism may make it easier for tenants to complain but what would actually happen if landlords failed to fulfill their duty? What types of penalties would be provided? I think a Tenant's Charter would bring in additional legal protection that is necessary to protect tenants from having to put up with slum conditions.  The incentives for landlords to offer longer tenancies (Javid says that they will be at least 12 months) to me seems a bit of a bribe. I'd rather see 5 year tenancies introduced as standard, as has been suggested by Labour.

Letting agents should have been regulated years ago so it's good to see the Tories commit to requiring agencies to have appropriately qualified and experienced staff and ensuring there is some form of professional oversight, as there is in professions such as Accountancy and the Law.

Health:
It's positive to see that more than 5,000 new training places on nurses training courses each year will be created and allowing health service assistants to train as nurses through a 4 year apprenticeship scheme also sounds like a good idea in theory but will sadly not address current shortages (there are 40,000 vacant nursing positions already according to the Royal College of Nursing). I'd have liked to have seen nursing training bursaries reinstated for those enrolling on undergraduate courses.  Introducing flexible working arrangements is a no-brainer in 2017 and allowing existing nurses the opportunity to pick up extra shifts will help reduce some agency costs in the short-term. Allowing staff first-refusal on homes built in affordable housing schemes located near the hospital which are built on NHS land which is sold for development also sounds sensible. However, NHS professionals who are living in expensive private rental accommodation and who rely on foodbanks to get the food to give them the energy to carry out their duties competently desperately need a substantial increase in basic pay now so I believe it isn't good enough that the Tories are not prepared to scrap the cap now, provide a small increase as a gesture of goodwill and then implement fully the recommendations of the independent pay review bodies.

The Armed Forces:
Sir Michael Fallon has suggested that Britain should increase the amount of GDP spent on defence beyond the 2% NATO target in order to address "growing threats from terrorism and states such as North Korea and Russia" (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/10/03/britain-should-raise-nato-2-defence-spending-target-says-michael/). The Tories have already committed to increasing the budget ahead of inflation on an annual basis and I could see an argument for increasing spending if it went towards cyber security but personally speaking I do not believe we should waste money on a ballistic missile system (I remain highly sceptical that we would face attack ourselves from North Korea and we should be focussing on strengthening the diplomatic response anyways) or be wasting money on replacing all 4 Trident submarines (I would like to see the nuclear submarine fleet cut by 50% down to 2). In terms of actual funding policy announcements, Fallon told the Conservative conference that £1bn will be pumped into the Royal Navy to invest in maintenance contracts for vessels including the new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers are fit for purpose so they spend more at sea post-Brexit. Well the Tories have always seen themselves as "global leaders in defence" and the policy goes down well with the base and if it helps to safeguard jobs, then it's a policy that will be beneficial regardless of whether Brexit actually ends up happening or not.

I have no issue with the expansion of cadet units in state schools.  I can understand the desire to give more state school students the chance to participate in activities that will help build their confidence and allow them to develop vital interpersonal skills (Fallon says the Government aims to establish 500 cadet units by 2020...http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/michael-fallon-cadet-unit-expansion-state-schools-uk-defence-secretary-social-mobility-conservative-a7980046.html). It's also good that the £50m of funding is coming from the Libor fine.

Making all positions available in the Armed Forces to women is a long-overdue decision but a welcome one; demonstrating a commitment to true equality of opportunity that we should all get behind regardless of political affiliation.

The Environment: 
Michael Gove announced that the maximum sentence for the most vile acts of animal cruelty will be increased from six months to five years; charities such as the RSPCA have been calling for tougher sentences for years and it is good to see the Government finally listen to them.
The Government are also looking to bring in a reward deposit return scheme for drinks bottles, with the working group charged with examining the proposal expected to report back early next year. I agree that such a policy would encourage people to recycle and reduce the amount of plastic in our seas and oceans.

Further Thoughts: 
I would be wary of dismissing the Tory conference in Manchester as an unmitigated PR disaster. Among some elements of the party, there is a defiant, forward-looking attitude persisting with a desire for a "successful Brexit" determining their optimism.  There are some Tory members who are not fussed by the idea of leaving the EU without a deal; for them Britain would thrive and weather any economic storm immediately following such an exit. Many of those members are turning towards fringe Brexiteer figures for answers; Jacob Rees-Mogg, MP for North East Somerset may have some reprehensible (at best old-fashioned) views on abortion and equal marriage (he doesn't speak for all Catholics or indeed all Christians in Britain btw) but to his "Moggmentum" fan club, he's seen as a credible leadership candidate. 600 people queued up on Monday 2nd October to hear him speak about the future of the UK post-Brexit. Not only did Mogg not disappoint the attendees with regards to bigging up the Brexit process (he compared the significance of Brexit with Magna Carta, the Burgesses entering Parliament, the Great Reform Act 1832, the Bill of Rights 1689 and the battles of Agincourt, Waterloo and Crecy and repeated his "we should give no more money to the EU" line), Mogg also decided to openly praise the activists for coming up with credible ideas and bemoaned the current party, structure, stating that MPs treat party activists "appallingly" (https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/oct/04/moggmentum-behind-jacob-rees-mogg-stirs-activists-tory-conservative-party-conference). By identifying so markedly with the base, Mogg is suring up his support should an opportunity arise for a ministerial position. Mogg's current and potential influence should not be underestimated by activists on the left or indeed, in the centre; he offers his sycophants a vision steeped in hope, one which they feel they desperately need to sustain their passion for social as well as fiscal "Classic" Conservative values. That includes the values that I'd rather see consigned to the dustbin of history such as telling women they can't have free access to abortions without abortion being seen as a crime. I completely agree the British Medical Association that all criminal sanctions related with the procedure should be abolished; abortion is a medical issue, not a criminal one (https://www.bma.org.uk/news/2017/june/doctors-back-decriminalisation-of-abortion). I suspect the Moggster and his fan club disagree with moi on that one.

It's perfectly acceptable (in fact it's preferable) to be optimistic and to hope for a better future for ourselves, our families, our communities and our nation. But the Tories cannot ignore the true extent of the massive structural issues that exist in the UK that have gotten worse under their watch, based on the dubious premise that Brexit will somehow help reduce or even resolve the majority of those issues within a few years following the conclusion of the process. Take for example the UK's productivity issue. Productivity levels have fallen for the second quarter in a row; the Office for National Statistics recorded a 0.1%  fall in the output per hour per worker between April and June which comes directly after a 0.5% decrease between January and March. We still produce as much per person as we did in the last quarter of 2007. According to the Financial Times, "UK workers produced 15.1% less per hour than workers in other G7 countries" in 2016 (https://www.ft.com/content/1c57dcb0-aa89-11e7-ab55-27219df83c97). This is extremely disappointing and indicates that Tory economic policy and the Industrial Strategy has failed to have the desired effect. Equally the UK has a huge productivity gap between the service and manufacturing sectors; service output per hour grew by 2.2% but manufacturing output per hour fell by 1.3% despite an increase in overall hours worked. Whilst the economy has grown (thanks to workers deciding that any job is worse than no job and being prepared to work long hours for minimal pay increases), the productivity issue needs to be addressed so that economic performance can improve further and the wages of young people, struggling to afford their rent, food and other life essentials can be raised without causing a huge inflation rise. Will the targeted £23bn worth of investment in infrastructure, research and housing already announced make a difference? Is it enough? More crucially: what effect will leaving the EU Single Market and Customs Union have on productivity growth levels?

The key issue that I feel has to be addressed urgently is housing. The Tory policies implemented between 2010 and 2017 have done little to help abate the crisis. Housing associations and private developers are only building 40,000 homes currently; that's less than the more than 50,000 homes built in 2011 and 2012 during the Coalition years (https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/oct/04/how-did-the-crisis-in-uk-social-housing-happen). According to Saville Research, in Lincoln, the average annual income needed to buy a 1,000 square foot home is £30,000; in London it's 68,000. Young people between the ages of 18 and 34 are spending more than 1/3 of their income after tax on rent or mortgage payments. It was only 5-10% back when my Dad was growing up in the 1960's. That's before you even talk about home ownership. The problem is that I don't aspire necessarily to owning my own home, I want a home in the future (when I eventually have to move out of my parents which is probably not going to happen till I hit the big 40 at this point) that is secure, fit for human habitation and has an affordable monthly rent. The Tories still seem to be obsessed with home ownership at the expense of private renters because of their focus on the Help to Buy scheme. Equally social rented housing  construction numbers have reduced from 36,000 in 2010/11 to 3,000 in 2011/12 (http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/rob-warm/theresa-may-housing_b_18190624.html?utm_hp_ref=uk-politics&ir=UK+Politics) which a pitiful amount really. That being said, there have been changes made to the rent that can be set by housing associations from 2020 (a new rent formula) which apparently will increase the number of social homes built. These are small baby steps policy wise when what's needed for Generation Renters is a bolder, more radical policy platform with strong protections built in for tenants, such as rent controls and end to social cleansing in the name of gentrification. You know where those policy announcements have been made? That's right....by Jeremy Corbyn in his speech in Brighton.

Even if you're no fan of Corbyn's policies, take the advice of Larry Elliott. Elliot has suggested that a housing market crash may be on the way due to the severe mismatch between supply and demand and those households who have gained a mortgage through the Help-To-Buy scheme may find it difficult to make the monthly loan interest repayments if the Bank of England interest rate increases because their disposable income has already been squeezed as a result of stagnant wage growth. The median house price in England in 2016 was "7.72 times average earnings", with the figure being 12.88 times average earnings in London. Those whose incomes fall in the bottom 25% in London now expect to pay "13.52 times their average earnings for a property in the cheapest 25% bracket"(https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/oct/08/the-uk-housing-markets-perfect-storm-and-five-steps-to-avoid-it). These figures are truly shocking and bold policy decisions need to be taken to prevent this Elliot argues that the Help-To-Buy should be scrapped, changes made to the council tax system and to land banking regulations and increasing supply  e.g. "identifying large sites abutting urban areas and acquiring them at a modest premium to the value of their existing use". Elliot also believes that the Bank of England should raise interest rates using a "kid glove approach" designed to help to "engineer a gradual fall in real (inflation adjusted) house prices".

Then there is the undeniable feeling that people who find themselves in strained circumstances through no fault of their own are not being supported adequately by this Government.; PM May's reluctance to order a review into the Universal Credit rollout to address the 6 week waiting period demonstrates her continued adherence to an austerity agenda that is hurting the most vulnerable in society. A Guardian reader, Mhari talked about how her first payment amount was incorrect and overdue and even when £250 was issued to her, it turns out that it was issued in error and she has to pay that back. Mhari is now at a point where she feels she is "existing" and wrote that if she "had two doors in front of her marked life and death", she'd "walk through the death door in a heartbeat". The UC changes are literally damaging people's mental health to the point where they are deciding they'd rather be dead than alive (https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/oct/08/i-cant-even-charge-my-wheelchair-the-impact-of-universal-credit-delays). UC is meant to "make work pay" whilst at the same time safeguarding disabled people from poverty and despair. 2.5m families will be on average £2,100 worse off as a result of the UC changes. Shame on the Government for pushing on with this ill-thought out UC rollout.

Conclusion:
Home truths time. The fact is, PM May and Tory frontbenchers, voters need real Jam today, not Jam tomorrow (i.e. significant investment which may require an increase in Government borrowing for a short period). We're not going to tackle structural issues such as the productivity puzzle or the Housing Crisis unless we have a party of Government that is prepared to deliver a radical, progressive vision for our country which is backed up by bold but clear and deliverable policies that can work regardless of whether Brexit actually happens in the form being moulded by Double D and his motley Brexiteer crew. I am not exactly Corbyn's biggest fan when it seems he is advocating for a Brexit which involves leaving the Single Market and Customs Union post the transitional deal or renationalisation max but I appreciate his progressive views on domestic policy. I'm much closer to the Lib Dems with their proposals for a referendum on the terms of the deal along with calls for mandatory sprinkler systems, annual checks by fire service personnel on buildings above 4 storeys and making fire evacuation drills mandatory in all buildings over 10 storeys "at times of peak occupancy by the end of June 2018". PM May never once mentioned such measures in her speech and yet tenants have been asking for such measures in the hope of improving fire safety following the Grenfell Tower fire and such requests have been made by people across the country, across racial, gender, age and yes, even Brexit outlook/voter divides. You see a desire for demonstrable progress is one which transcends such barriers. Yet the vision that has been outlined by PM May and her ministers is one of continuity, one of "Keep Calm and Carry On", a rose-tinted vision that is ultimately unsustainable.

If PM May and her cabinet do not devise more radical policies to address the housing crisis, to help the  most vulnerable in our society whilst at the same time enabling social mobility and a spirit of aspiration, I have no doubt that some independently minded swing voters will have no choice to vote for a party that offers at least an exciting, radical vision and a set of bold domestic policies....a party like the Lib Dems, the Greens or Labour.