Cedaw People’s Tribunal: Muslim women, migrants and domestic violence victims lives destroyed by no legal aid

Successive governments’ decision to cut drastically the legal aid budget has caused enormous damage to diverse women and girls groups according to witnesses who gave evidence today to the CEDAW People’s Tribunal.

They cover the plight of Muslim women who are forced to seek divorces at Sharia Courts because they cannot afford to go to a civil court, migrants denied access to legal aid and married women fleeing domestic violence going to family courts over the custody of children and divorce settlements. The tribunal is looking at how the Un Convention on the Elimination of all forms of discrimination can be put into UK law.

Legal aid ban putting Muslim women at the mercy of patriarchal fundamentalism

Pragna Patel founder and director of Southall Black Sisters (SBS)
[SBS is, a multi-award-winning women’s organisation founded in 1979 to address the needs of black and minority women experiencing gender violence.
It successfully campaigned for the release of Kiranjit Ahluwalia, a landmark case in which an Asian woman was convicted of the murder of her violent husband. The case reformed homicide law, creating greater awareness within and outside minority communities.]

A damning indictment of the drastic effect of legal aid cuts which had created formidable barriers for all women – but especially black and ethnic minority women – was made by Pragna Patel.

She was particularly critical of the plight of Muslim women fleeing a marriage and unable to access the civil courts because of the lack of legal aid. Instead decisions were taken by unofficial religious courts dominated by conservative patriarchal fundamentalists. ” The woman has no status there, no right to keep her children, no property rights and no inheritance rights. This completely contravenes human rights.”

She cited a case of one woman who has only had a religious marriage – which had never been followed by a civil marriage. As a result when she went to a civil court to get her rights – the court could not rule on the marriage as it has never been legally recognised. The case has gone to the Law Commission but it has so far not ruled on it.

She also attacked the funding system – having won a judicial review against Ealing Council – when it withdrew funding. She said most of the money was now given to ” generic services ” based on getting results set by targets rather than specialist services offering long term support to people.

“Domestic abuse perpetrator given custody of children at his former wife’s expense”

Dr Charlotte Proudman – barrister at Goldsmith Chambers

Dr Proudman highlighted the lack of legal aid holding back women to defend their rights in family courts after quitting their marriage over domestic abuse. She said there was an inequality of arms when they had to appear as a litigant-in-person because they could not afford to pay a barrister. She also said the courts had the discretion on who should pay and where the children should reside in cases – leaving in one instance a woman who had left her husband because of domestic abuse having to pay for her children to be looked after by her abuser – her husband.

She was highly critical of the lack of training for barristers and judges on handling domestic abuse cases – and the failure of the government after the passing of the Domestic Abuse Act to specify what training will be given. She also said that many of the lawyers eyes glazed over when they the issues of women’s rights and certainly CEDAW were mentioned.

She also thought that judiciary was dominated by elite men -” male, pale and stale” – educated at private schools and Oxbridge. She said most of the women were also from the same elite -privately educated and with Oxbridge degrees – meaning neither knew much about the life of the people who came before their courts. She came from a working class background and had gone to a state comprehensive school.

Equality Act has left people working in silos

Esua Jane Goldsmith

Esuantsiwa Jane Goldsmith, from Anona Development Consultancy on International Developments on Human Rights. Esuantsiwa  was one of the first black VSO volunteers, serving as a teacher in Tanzania 1977-79. Esua was a leading figure in the UN process for women, attending the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, Beijing 1995, as a member of the UK Government Delegation representing Development INGOs. She was founder and Chair of the Beijing Forum which co-ordinated the input of UK development NGOs.  She was the first black woman Chair of the Fawcett Society, Chair and Co-founder of the Gender and Development Network

Esua has highly critical and disappointed by the failure of the 2010 Equality Act. She had great hopes that the Equality and Human Rights Commission by putting all the equality issues together would be a big improvement. But instead she said it was still working in silos and relying on individual litigation.

She thought putting CEDAW into domestic law would create a much more holistic approach bringing together business, politicians, civil society, ngos and the women’s sector together by breaking down barriers.

She was scathing about the lack of progress of BAME women in Parliament – 35 out of 650 MPs. She also attacked the way white males trolled and pursued prominent black women like Diane Abbot, just because they were powerful people.

Dramatic rise in on line sexual abuse during the pandemic

Kelly Johnson – researcher

Dr Kelly’s areas of research/expertise include domestic and sexual violence, policing, and more broadly violence against women and girls; including Rape Crisis. She has particular research experience in the policing of domestic abuse, image-based sexual abuse (including ‘cyberflashing’, so-called ‘revenge porn’ and ‘upskirting’) and feminist theory.

An alarming picture of the rise in ” revenge porn” during the pandemic leading to sexual violence against was women during the pandemic left the police unable to have the resources to act to control it, Dr Kelly told the tribunal. She said this caused “significant and devastating harm for women”. Black and ethnic minority men were disproportionately involved and many of the attacks were misogynistic with a sense of male entitlement that they could do what they wanted.

When sexual violence followed this the police were not always able to cope – with basic resources like police cars in short supply – so they couldn’t get out to see people. Perpetrators were getting away scot free and were also using on line dating sites.

She called for long lasting cultural changes including much better education of young boys, teaching them the need for consent.

Media stereotyping of women puts pressure on women politicians at national and local level

Sofia Collignon -politics researcher

Sofia is Co Investigator in the ESCR-funded Representative Audit of Britain project, part of Parliamentary Candidates UK and principal investigator in the Survey of Local Candidates in England. Fields of expertise: Gender equality, Participation, Policy design and delivery

The media were criticised for stereotyping women politicians and putting extra strain on women in public life. Some times they were the victims of a campaign of disinformation or not given the opportunity to reply. She called on journalists to be more accurate and carefujl in their reporting of women ;politicians and local councillors.

She said that though there were more women MPs -originally from a low base – an analysis of candidates standing for Parliament showed they were often given unwinnable seats so never got elected. She praised three countries -Sweden, New Zealand and Mexico – for giving women politicians a pro active role. Mexico was particularly praised for having a gender equal role which saw a massive increase in the number of women politicians.

She thought Parliamentary candidates should have compulsory training in equal rights before they stood for Parliament – as part of an initiative to bring CEDAW into domestic law.

The secret UK world of polygamous marriages

Yasmin has worked for more than 30 years predominantly on violence against women, race, faith and gender, and human rights.  She has acted as an expert witness in legal cases providing expert reports on faith based abuse and Muslim marriage practices including polygamy and temporary marriage.  Yasmin is chief Executive Officer at JUNO WOMEN’S AID (formerly Women’s Aid Integrated Services).

An extraordinary picture of the unknown scale of polygamous marriages in the UK was given to the tribunal by Yasmin Rehman.

She said nobody knows the scale of the marriages and the government is blind to the problem. It is hidden because Imans often give secret ceremonies for Muslim men who have one civil marriage to marry other women. There is also a ban on sex outside marriage for Moslems, she said, – which is why there are some additional marriages. Other polygamous marriages avoid bigamy laws – as UK men with a wife and family at home, marry another woman in countries where polygamous marriages are allowed.

She said the religious practice was harmful to women who are given a subordinate role – but the real problem was the clash between the freedom of practices allowed by religion with gender and equality issues. Worse there was some evidence that women were trafficked into the UK for forced polygamous marriages.

” The issue is seen to be in the too difficult box which is why there is not a single politician who is prepared to take the issue up.”

She said only one politician – the former Tory Chancellor, Sajid Javid – had raised part of the issue – but only over children being forced to marry an older man.

Other witnesses

Baljit Banga, executive director of Imkaam, a UK based black feminist umbrella organisation, gave a detailed run down on what was wrong with the Domestic Abuse Act and why there is a need for a much better alternative and Dr Annette Lawson, chair of the national Women’s Commission, abolished in 2010 on why there is a need for some successor funded body to pull all women’s groups together to implement CEDAW.

The hearings are now over and the next stage is to draw up a report.

High court judgement on 50swomen pension’s cannot stand – Jocelynne Scutt tells CEDAW People’s Tribunal

Dr Jocelynne Scutt

The president of the Cedaw People’s Tribunal, and a former judge, Jocelynne Scutt, said today that the decision by the Court of Appeal to turn down the judicial review into the handling of the rise of the pension age for 50s women will be overturned.

She was commenting on evidence to the tribunal from Christine Cooper, chair of accounting at Edinburgh Business School on the plight of 50s women and how CEDAR could redress the issue. She was giving evidence in a personal capacity.

Christine Cooper pointed out that the ruling -part based on the fact that the 1995 legislation allowed the Department for Work and Pensions to say they had no obligation to tell the 3.8 million women about changes to their pension would have wider implications for the rest of government policy if it was applied in other areas. For this reason alone it is likely to be challenged in other cases.

If the UN Convention on the Elimination of all forms of discrimination against women (CEDAW) was part of UK law it would seen as discrimination against a particular group on that ground alone.

Christine Coooer

Christine Cooper strongly defended the 50swomen saying ; ” This is a group of women who did all what was expected of them in society, brought up families and went back to work when they could. The way they have been treated is mad.”

She said if the government had spent the £6.5 million on an advertising campaign to get people to take out a second private pension instead on informing women about the change in 2001 they would have been more prepared. Instead it had only spent £80,000 47,000 leaflets many going to private finance advisers – the people who were most likely to know about it anyway. She said the worst affected people were those who were in low paid jobs, single women, divorced women, women from ethnic minorities and those who had worked part time.

She it was clear that there had been no impact study in 1995 on the effect it could have on the women and the impact study which covered the 2011 Pensions Act was based on how men would be affected. Most women only had months notice – while men had seven years notice of the rise in the pension age from 65 to 66.

She also revealed that the DWP does not keep any information on the gender pay gap ,the gap between the pension earnings of women and men. Instead a survey is done by Prospect, a Whitehall trade union, which revealed that the difference has remained stubbornly at 40 per cent for the last five years -meaning men will get a pension worth £7,500 more than women.

Occupational pension pots for women aged 65 are at present £35,800 – a fifth of the figure for men at the same age.

Government pressure to get trade deals will hit women’s pay – former civil servant

Janet Veitch- former civil servant with extensive knowledge of CEDAW

A former senior civil servant warned that both Brexit and the hostile environment against migrants were going to have a disproportionate effect on women’s rights.

Janet Veitch OBE  is a consultant in the UK and internationally on women’s rights, having worked for ten years for the UK Ministers for Women and as Director of the UK Women’s National Commission.

She is a founder member of the End Violence Against Women Coalition; Vice-Chair of ‘Equally Ours’ and an associate adviser on gender for the British Council. Janet was awarded the OBE for services to women’s rights in 2011.

Janet Veitch said that the UK leaving a market of 500 million people would profoundly affect the British economy because it had yet to find alternative markets. Pressure to get trade deals would lead to a downward pressure on wages and labour conditions, which would predominately affect women, as many were already in low paid jobs.

The ” hostile environment ” against migrants would also lead people to start to condone a critical attitudes against people who looked visually different to themselves. CEDAW might not be a complete panacea but it would force the government to do due diligence on a host of issues.

Horrendous statistics on how women are treated over maternity leave and costly child care

Joeli Brearley – campaigner on maternity rights

A horrendous picture of discrimination against pregnant women was outlined by Joeli Brearley to the tribunal.

Joeil,founder and CEO of ‘Pregnant Then Screwed’, a charity which protects and supports women who encounter pregnancy; maternity discrimination and lobbies the Government for legislative change. This was after being sacked when she was four months pregnant.  Joeli was awarded the 2019 Northern Power Women ‘’Agent of Change’’; and is an International Women Human Rights Defender.

She described the appalling position of pregnant women who were often sacked by employers but then found they could get no redress under the employment tribunal system She said they had, while heavily pregnant only three months to lodge a case, found it would cost them £8000 to do so and many had no knowledge of the law. As a result there were very few cases.

She said women were hit by two major issues -facing pay cuts if they lost their jobs as they had to seek part time work on low pay – and paying for the second most expensive child care costs in Europe.

Typical child care costs took 33 per cent of their salary while single mothers, it took 67 per cent of their earnings. The difference between maternity leave and male parental leave of just two weeks meant only three per cent of men took a major part in looking after the new born baby, even though many more men would have liked to do it. Those who did had a 40 per cent more chance of staying together.

She said the situation had worsened during the Covid 19 pandemic. She thought CEDAW would make a big difference.

Loneliness and misery for women in rural Britain

Nick Newland

Poor transport and health services, loneliness in the remote areas of the UK were all part of the problems facing women in rural England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.

Nick Newland is from the Association of Country Women Worldwide The organisation exists to amplify the voices of rural women, so that the problems they face and the solutions they raise are heard and acknowledged by international policy-makers and legislators. Rural women are the backbone of families/communities but they go unheard
in legislation, and they remain unprotected and unsupported. ACWW exists to change that.

He hoped CEDAW would lead to women have a much greater say in rural areas – and not just in the odd focus group -so they could get change in their area. He said transport was a major problem for many women – though it was better in Scotland and Wales than England.

He cited an example of one woman living in Monmouth who had to spend seven hours travelling to get a 15 minute jab against Covid 19 in Newport because of the bus timetable.

He also said that loneliness and isolation of women was a major issue – and had been made worse for women by the raising of the pension age. He said getting health care was also a big issue and there was a serious mental health crisis in rural Britain – some times aggravated by their farmer partners committing suicide. There were also cases of brain damage among women who had tried to commit suicide but had not succeeded.

” There is a desperate need for a national strategy , a better quality of life and equality for women in education and health.”

” We have already got one Pakistani here , we can’t take another one” – women’s refuge owner

Rosie Lewis at TUC backed rally

Rosie Lewis is Director of the Angelou Centre , Newcastle supporting the organisation’s services for Black women and girl survivors and has been involved in social justice activism for more than 25 years.

She has given evidence to CEDAW and to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse in order to ensure that the findings of both reflect the state response to violence against Black and minority ethnic women and girls. 

An appalling picture of the treatment of women from ethnic minorities now migrant women and children had been excluded deliberately by the government from new domestic abuse legislation was given by Rosie Lewis

She said they were now being excluded from access to justice, help from specialists and many professional organisations no longer want to know or help them. She cited the case of one woman fleeing a forced marriage being told by the person running a women’s refuge, ” We already have one Pakistani here, we can’t take another one.”

She said a city like Durham now had no specialist organisation that could help people in the surrounding rural areas.

She thought if the UK did adopt CEDAW in UK law it would raise awareness, and improve access to services for ethnic minorities.

Other witnesses.

There was also evidence given today from Catherine Casserley, a barrister specialising in employment, discrimination, and Human Rights law. Co author of ‘Disability Discrimination Claims: An Adviser’s Handbook’. She said CEDAW would make a big difference to the plight of disabled women, including increasing awareness, creating a willingness to change and give a proactive approach to achieving equality.

Cris McCurley, who studied Law at the University of Essex and is a Partner in Ben Hoare Bell LLP; and a member of The Law Society’s Access to Justice Committee. gave some damning evidence of the treatment judges gave in family courts towards ethnic minorities.

Rebecca J. Cook from Toronto University who has made a contribution to international women’s rights as an author, legal educator, editor, lecturer, and participant in numerous conferences sponsored by such organizations as the World Health Organization and Planned Parenthood. She gave a video interview on abortion issues facing women.

Lisa Gormley from the LSE Women’s Peace and Security Policy, gave a talk on violence against women and the role of the Istanbul Convention, which the UK has yet to sign up.

She is an international lawyer specialising in equality for women and girls. She has also worked closely for several years with the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences Lisa a legal adviser in Amnesty International’s International Secretariat (2000-2014).

Finally there was also a video from Professor Diane Elson and Mary-Ann Stephenson analysing how much the government spends on women and the huge pay gap between women and men.

Mary-Ann is the Director of the Women’s Budget Group and has worked for women’s equality and human rights for over twenty years as a campaigner, researcher and trainer. She was previously Director of the Fawcett Society and a Commissioner on the Women’s National Commission.

Professor Diane Elson is Emeritus Professor at University of Essex; member of the UN Committee for Development Policy; and consultant to UN Women.  She has served as  Vice-President of the International Association for Feminist Economics and as a member of G7 Gender Equality Advisory Council (2018).  She one of the pioneers of gender analysis of government budgets.

Afghanistan’s horrendous choice: War with women’s rights or peace with servitude

Photo by Engin Akyurt on Pexels.com

Today is International Women’s Day and as my contribution I am focusing on Afghanistan as both the UK and the US cut their support to this country

I have recently come across a searing Congressional report from the United States Inspectorate on Afghanistan Reconstruction on the state of women’s and girl’s equality there.

Everybody knows the years of conflict which has cost British and American lives to rid the country of the Taliban regime and their horrendous treatment of women.

But this report shines a different light on the current plight of women just as the UK and the US are about to leave the country should a deal be possible between the war lords and the Taliban.

The United States has spent £564m in aid over nearly 20 years on women and girls

It reveals that during the never ending conflict from 2002 to 2020 the US has spent some £564.6 million on women and girls. On one level the achievement for women has been startling. From virtually no girls in schools under the Taliban there are now 3.5 million girls receiving an education. And a third of the country’s 210,000 teachers are now women but mainly in urban areas like Kabul.

There have been improvements in maternity care despite a horrendous death rate among pregnant women. Prenatal care coverage rose from 16 percent of pregnant women in 2002 to 61 percent in 2015. Postnatal care coverage increased from an average of 28 percent between 2005 and 2010 to 40 percent in 2015. And the number of trained midwives rose from a pathetic 467 in 2002 to roughly 4,000 in 2018.

There is, like many other areas, a huge disparity between urban and rural areas. Some 16 per cent of women died in childbirth in Kabul rising to an alarming 65 per cent in one rural province in 2002. This has improved with various estimates from the UK, Irish and World Health Organisation by between 19 per cent and 50 per cent, because reliable statistics are difficult to verify.

What has not improved particularly in rural areas is the attitude towards women. The US government also tried to encourage women to join the army and the police – this was the least effective of their programmes. “Targets have been highly unrealistic and unachievable. Although there has been a modest increase in the number of women police officers, women in all parts of the security forces face threats to their personal safety and pervasive harassment and discrimination,” says the report.

KABUL, 22 October 2019 – UNAMA Central Region Office in Kabul organized Global Open Day event, to facilitate discussion on women, peace, and security. The event was attended by 36 participants representatives from women rights activists, Government actors, schools’ teachers, local shuras, and university students. UNAMA CRO head of office In her opening remarks emphasized the importance of the Global Open Day as a forum to review the implementation of the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security. UNAMA Photo / Fardin Waezi.

The US aid has had more effect in getting women involved in politics and the community. The report says: “Afghan women have assumed leadership roles at the national, provincial, district, and community levels. At the same time, they face threefold threats: continued or intensified violence, the risk of Afghan peace negotiations leading to erosions of women’s rights, and a dire economic and humanitarian situation exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Covid 19 has caused big problems in Afghanistan. The report says: “The lack of testing capability means that up to 90 percent of collected samples are untested, and therefore go unreported. Of the limited number of tests conducted, Afghanistan’s positivity rate—the percentage of tests that reveal COVID-19 infection—was nearly 43 percent as of July 2020, one of the highest in the world.”

The World Bank is alarmed that widespread poverty will become worse as the Afghan economy is hit by the pandemic cd see those living in poverty rise to 72 per cent of the population. Cultural problems make treatment for women worse. “Due to deeply entrenched sociocultural norms, many Afghans are reluctant to allow their mothers, wives, daughters, or sisters to visit a doctor directly, or at all, if that doctor is a male.”

The future is not rosy in other areas for women. The report found “Some of the gains made for girls in access to education may not be sustainable, since a large portion of the education sector in Afghanistan is dependent on international donor funding for maintaining and expanding those gains.”

No level playing field for men and women in meetings

And it is not a level playing field in political meetings. One woman told the report “When we have meetings and both men and women raise their hands and show their cards, the respect that is given to men is not given to women. The time which is given to men is not given to women. When a woman speaks, she is not allowed to speak more than three minutes, but a man is allowed to speak more than 15 minutes.”

Women are still scared in many parts of the country to go out alone as they can face harassment and violence from men. SIGAR interviewed 65 people from all Afghanistan’s 14 provinces and both men and women said it was society’s constraints that held women back.

The time which is given to men is not given to women. When a woman speaks, she is not allowed to speak more than three minutes, but a man is allowed to speak more than 15 minutes.”

Afghan woman

Many interviewees—male and female—said that social and cultural norms are one of the biggest barriers to Afghan women’s advancement, particularly in rural areas. “Men in our community think the role of women is to sit at home and cook. If their mothers tell them to behave well with their wives, so they do, and if their mothers order them to beat their wives and misbehave, so they also do,” said a woman from Nangarhar Province.

President Biden will decide soon whether to completely pull out of Afghanistan which was the policy of the Trump administration. The UK, according to a leaked report to Open Democracy will cut aid sharply to Afghanistan shortly. Once again it will be women who will lose out and many of their fragile gains could once again be lost. As the report said if the Taliban and other war lords regain full control “the effort to promote women’s rights may be hampered by a growing narrative in Afghanistan that the country can either have women’s rights at the cost of peace, or peace at the cost of women’s rights.”

The full report by SIGAR is worth a good read.

Bye Bye Europe, Hello China, India and the Pacific

Elizabeth Truss; ” Empress of the Pacific”

” Let the Queen of England collect a great fleet, let her stow away all her treasure, bullion, gold plate, and precious arms; be accompanied by all her court and chief people, and transfer the seat of her empire from London to Delhi. ”

This is a quote from Tancred, a novel by former Tory Prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, written in 1847. In it he also said; ““England is no longer a mere European power; she is the metropolis of a great maritime empire . . . she is really more an Asiatic power than a European one”.

I suspect that the world view of Disraeli, who later made Queen Victoria Empress of India, might now be similar to the world view of Boris Johnson and Elizabeth Truss, the international trade secretary and the new Empress of the Pacific.

Of course neither are going to do anything as crude as reconquering India nor are they going to emulate Tancred, Prince of Galilee, the Norman who led the first successful crusade in the Middle East in the 12th century.

But what they are doing by planning to join the Asia Pacific free trade pact and create – with the offer to 5.2 million people in Hong Kong to come to the United Kingdom – potentially the biggest migration of people for centuries that is going to change the nature of this country for good.

Since at the same time it will far more difficult for Europeans to settle here the UK will become in Disraeli’s words ” more an Asiatic power than a European one.” It will be backed up by pressure from countries like India, Malaysia and Vietnam for the UK to concede more immigration into the country as part of any future trade deals.

Foreign student numbers from China and India are booming

What is interesting is that it has already started. The moment the UK voted in 2016 to leave the EU the young started voting with their feet – with students from EU countries no longer so keen to come while applications from China and India started soaring. Figures released this week by a London property company show it even had an effect on the capital’s rental market as wealthy overseas students were happy to rent or even own new flats. And this is all before the ink was dry on the withdrawal agreement which came into force on January 1. The biggest rise is China -over 20 per cent in one year with India recording a 15 per cent increase.

That huge jump on the graph is the number of students from China while the EU students flatlined.

One reason for this surge also appears to be ex President Trump and his ” America First” policy which has deterred Asians from going to the US.

Andrew Weir, CEO of LCP, the London property company, comments “The UK’s safe haven status, diverse and liberal culture has attracted overseas students who would have previously studied in the US. The US has not seen growth rates above 5% since 2017, this contrasts with a 15% growth rate in the UK in 2019/20.”

“Despite fears Brexit may impact the UK and London’s status as a global city, the number of first year overseas students from the Asia region now vastly outnumbers the total number of students from all EU countries combined.

“There has been a recent surge in students from India enrolling into UK higher education establishments, almost doubling in 2019/20 compared with the previous academic year. A new generation of overseas students view the UK as a desirable place in which to reside and study.”

Falling numbers of German and Irish students

Indeed the number of students from Germany coming to the UK is now falling as are the number of students from the Republic of Ireland our nearest neighbour. Cyprus and Greece are also falling slightly. This has been balanced by a rise in the number of students from Portugal – always a low number – and Romania. You can read in more detail on this website which not only gives a bigger picture but also a breakdown for each university. Of course since then there has been the pandemic, but if there is a fall, it will only be short term. It is quite clear what the trend is. And when students come others will try to follow.

There is a supreme irony in all this. Many people who voted for Brexit were also against mass immigration – remember Nigel Farage and the warning of millions of Turks getting free movement to come to the UK. Well we may not get millions of Turks – in fact there was not much danger of that anyway as it takes years to join the EU. But we are going to get a major reset in the composition of people who make up the UK population. I actually welcome more diversity and Asian and Chinese people have a great record as entrepreneurs. But I wonder whether people thought when they voted for Brexit that Britain was on the way to become an Anglo-Asiatic nation.

I

Another fine mess: MPs slam £425m school food voucher scheme as firm walks off with the profits

The Department for Education promoting the Edenred scheme

Company predicted “successful business performance” on the back of feeding poverty stricken children

The spectre of poor children going hungry during the Covid 19 crisis is something the government have had to be put under pressure to remedy – notably by Marcus Rashford, the Manchester United footballer.

But now it has emerged that even when the government finally did the right thing – they managed to make a mess of it. The initial scheme was poorly implemented and the supervision by the Department for Education (DfE) of the private company, Edenred UK Ltd, was lamentable.

Naive civil servants thought they were getting a bargain when the company told them that they get the supermarket vouchers for them at their face value without it costing them a penny more. What they hadn’t realised was that the company could get a huge discount from supermarkets by bulk buying and pocket the difference themselves. And on an initial contract worth £77m later increased five fold to £425m that’s a lot of cash.

Whitehall ” surprisingly unconcerned” about Edenred making big profits out of taxpayers’ money

The report by the Commons Public Accounts Committee expresses dismay that the ministry even now seemed ” surprisingly unconcerned” about the profits made out of our money and has hit back at the MPs for suggesting it – backing the company which is also trying to deny it. A wonderful example of how the Johnson government is prepared to be shamed faced about making money out of Covid 19 and the plight of poor children.

There were serious problems in the early weeks of the scheme” and “unacceptable delays in Edenred processing orders from schools and getting vouchers to families,” the report reveals..

Those words cover up the distressing evidence given by individual schools to MPs.

School staff had to work in the middle of the night to get Edenred’s vouchers

Ms Andrea Howard ,School Business Manager at Truro & Penwith Academy Trust at the time of using Edenred, wrote to Mps, saying she was ” subjected to extreme levels of stress.”

“From the onset, the portal was not fit for purpose, initially it continually crashed and when the portal was first upgraded, there was a very long wait to access the site, this wait was sometimes more than two hours.  “For several nights in a row, I and many other school business manager colleagues took to waking up in the middle of the night to attempt to upload our spreadsheets, and site traffic was better in the early hours of the morning.  However, the fact that there was still traffic at these times is evidence of the desperation of school staff to be able to provide their families with vouchers.”

“Once parents received their vouchers, we had reports from the majority that they were not able to access the platform to redeem them.  It must be recognised that many of these families have limited access to the internet and tried to redeem the vouchers through their phones using their limited mobile data. 

 ” Additionally, we are located in a rural part of Cornwall with no nearby supermarkets, many of our families do not have access to their own transport and there is a very limited bus service, however the vouchers were only able to be used in large supermarket chains and not local shops such as co-op (initially) and Spar. “

Gavin Williamson, education secretary

Gavin Williamson made ” untrue statements”- headteacher

Raphael Moss, Headteacher, Elsley Primary School, Wembley, told MPs:” Due to the untrue statements made by the Secretary of State [Gavin Williamson] and DfE, their lack of acceptance of many of the issues, or the downplaying of the impact, I feel compelled to submit evidence for what amounts to gross negligence. As a result of the delays to providing vouchers, our own school set up a food bank, relying on donations from staff and the public, to ensure that children did not go hungry. “

“A major flaw in the scheme was that there was a huge incentive for schools to use the Edenred scheme rather than use a local alternative. A school’s own scheme would require laying out the cost of it it ourselves, with DfE guidance placing several limitations on which schools could claim and maximum amounts that could be claimed.

“The Edenred voucher amount of £15 was also in excess of the usual funding of £11.50 which also acted as an incentive to use the Edenred scheme. The public messages implied that schools had a choice to use their own scheme but without mentioning the limitations on schools reclaiming costs.”

Profits of £10.7 million

Taking this evidence it is quite clear that the scheme was aimed ( with Whitehall connivance) as much as benefitting Edenred as the poor hungry children. No wonder after a National Audit Office investigation and a critical report by MPs they have decided to return one per cent of the cost of the contract.

Their latest accounts – they are a subsidiary of a French firm – show they made profits of over £10.7 million.

Their annual report says they were ” honoured ” to get the food voucher contract which” will enable a successful business performance in 2020.”

You bet it did. The pay rise for their highest paid director last year was £136,000 – it went up from £235,000 to £371,000. That pays for a lot of food vouchers – more likely in caviar and French champagne than baked beans and spaghetti.

Travelogue Kennedy Space Center: The billionaires’ space race to Mars

SpaceX building at Cape Canaveral

Imagine in 40 years time booking a 14 day holiday on Amazon Prime to hike the craters of the moon. Or a tourist  world voyage to Mars.

Visiting the Kennedy Space Center on a huge nature reserve on North  Merritt Island this year is not  just awesome  but at an extraordinary time in its history.The Florida site is not only where NASA does its top level research as well as showcasing its past achievements  it is now the place where the world’s richest men are competing with each other to launch into space.

 If you ever wondered where the huge profits of international capitalist companies are going, most of the money they have made is being spent here. They are gambling on a new lucrative tourist business that will be worth billions in the future. And they are changing the face of Cape Canaveral. Dotted among the state owned space facilities are brand new space centres owned by private individuals and companies each competing with each other to build rockets , space capsules and launch sites . The only one missing is billionare Richard Branson whose Virgin Galatic company is based elsewhere.

Thus you have Elon Musk, worth $37.7billion, and owner of Tesla electric cars ,with SpaceX, planning with his Falcon rocket to take US astronauts to the space station and then planning to go to the Moon and beyond. He is competing with the world’s richest man Jeff Bezos, worth $125.3 billion and owner of Amazon whose Blue Origen company wants to go to the Moon. And you have Boeing with a base here who want to expand from building aircraft to spacecraft.

And what is also interesting is that the Space centre itself has the Journey to Mars centre where enthusiastic scientists are openly aiming to recruit the next generation to work on their space programme to “solve the impossible ” for the Mars mission.

The talk aimed at today’s ten year olds is premised that if you follow the history of the development of flight within 40 years what could be accomplished by a few pioneers will become commonplace for commercial services for tourists. Hence the interest in the commercialisation of space.

On the  cruise ship one of the most interesting lectures came from a NASA scientist who explained some of the pioneering work being done to aid the space project.Dr Lawrence Kutznetz showed that the breadth of research was spilling over into fields that could help the   disabled , aid medical research,and go the limits of technology.One worldwide research project involves designing a light weight spacesuit from scratch which will be essential if anyone wants to roam around Mars. Unlike the Moon Martian Gravity is similar to Earth’s and no human could walk more the few yards without collapsing under the weight of what they have to carry to stay alive. So using the Internet, peer reviewed research  is designing new materials, sealing the helmet from the rest of the body and allowing the rest of the suit to leak

Another project has very recently discovered by mistake that a particular drug when used on elderly mice caused cells covering its whole body to regenerate turning the equivalent of a 60 year old mouse to having the energy of an adolescent.

Scientists are not quite clear how this happened. The implications of this last experiment I can imagine will be very interesting for our wealthy billionaires funding the space programme – imagine being able to live until you are 150 – double the present lifespan.Or imagine Donald Trump or Rupert Murdoch being offered a double lifespan.Perhaps not.

Other experiments have discovered that if you link two people’s brains using non evasive electrodes it is possible by thought alone to  operate another person’s artificial hand.

So not only is the space centre an exciting place to visit but some of the research going on there is in the realm of science fiction.

Saturn 5 rocket

On Byline Times: Gove’s failed university technical colleges cost taxpayers £800m

Michael Gove’s legacy:The now closed Black Country University Technical College in Walsall.Pic credit: BBC

Another day. Another taxpayer disaster for the Conservatives. This time it is the National Audit Office reporting on the full cost of Michael Gove’s failed vocational education initiative which cost taxpayers £800m and left a trail of brand new closed colleges. Read the horrendous details of this latest scandal on Byline Times here.

Michael Gove who admits his scheme has been a failure. pic credit:BBC

On Byline Times: Brexit chaos leads to big drop in EU science money as scientists stay away from UK

Nanotechnology helping the food industry. Pic credit: European Commission

The Royal Society has issued a dire warning that the UK is already suffering a big drop in science funding from the EU because of Brexit.- MPs in Parliament warn it could get even worse contrary to claims by Boris Johnson. Full story here

On Byline Times: MPs slam Home Office for “Windrush” scandal that hit 50,000 overseas students over cheating claims

Home Office HQ: MPs accuse the ministry under Theresa May of ” entirely unacceptable” behaviour in handling the problem

MPs today accused the Home Office of learning nothing from another “Windrush” scandal over their treatment of 50,000 overseas students from outside the EU and European Economic Area who were said – many wrongly – of cheating in oral English language tests to get a university place.

The Commons Public Accounts Committee said it is “staggered” by the uncaring attitude of the Home Office over the fate of thousands of students who were accused five years ago and had their visas cancelled or voluntarily left the country as a result. Others had to spend thousands of pounds to win court cases against the government to prove their innocence.

The full story is here on Byline Times.

Fifty Shades of Child Abuse: How a brave survivor is pioneering a fight back in Cumbria

Resilience Film 2

A snapshot from the Resilience film being shown across Cumbria

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Cumbria is amongst the first regions in England to try and tackle the poisonous chalice of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), including child sexual and physical abuse using medical science developed in the United States and extensively trialled in Southern California and now here in the UK.

The Cumbria community initiative, known as The Cumbria Resilience Project, comes from a 61-year-old survivor himself – a victim of the notorious paedophile and abuser John Allen – sentenced to life imprisonment on 33 counts of sexual abuse against 19 boys and one girl- aged between 7 and 15 – while running a children’s home in North Wales. Allen like so many paedophiles denied all of this and claimed the people making the allegations all wanted to make money. But the jury at Mold Crown Court disagreed.

The  anonymous survivor has just written a very readable  book – available from Amazon here for £7.99p  – Aces in the shadows – Understanding Adverse Childhood Experiences.

He thought he might call it 50 Shades of ACEs because of sadly the variety of adversity, including physical, sexual, and bullying abuse (some inflicted by other traumatised children as well as adults) which damages thousands of children in their homes, schools, places of safety and in war zones and among refugees.

ACEs science comes from a health questionnaire used in the CDC-Kaiser Permanente ACEs Study, which is one of the largest investigations of childhood abuse and neglect and later-life health and well-being in the USA, can now be used by GP’s and trained counsellors to act as a gauge on how deeply traumatised children and adults have become following adverse childhood experiences through abuse, neglect and household challenges, often caused by members of their family, teachers, children’s home staff , and priests leading to perpetual mental and physical health outcomes in later life including Cancer, Ischemic heart disease, Liver disease, Alcoholism, Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and Depression.

The science, now accepted by the World Health Organization (WHO), shows beyond any doubt that a child’s growing brain can be arrested by such traumatic experiences, but the brain’s plasticity and the building of resilience can help people recover in later life. The book includes views from three professionals, Al Coates MBE, a social worker; Judy James, a coach-therapist; and Laura McConnell, a teacher and ADHD campaigner, on how to tackle this. The survivor adds his own views.

With a score of 10 ACEs, the anonymous survivor has endured it all – three marriages, fathered eight children, 40 sexual partners, 34 homes, two bankruptcies, copious drink and sleeping pills and a range of health conditions. Only the unconditional love of his third wife helped pull him through after years of therapy.

His psychiatrist diagnosed that he suffers from complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – something ( which I will return in a later blog) the authorities don’t wish to know about because of the expense of treating it. He concludes : ” I do not believe however he is likely to make a complete or rapid recovery because of the duration of his symptoms since childhood.”

The good news is that such episodes have become rarer while the work he is doing in Cumbria is growing beyond anything he could have expected.

” Cumbria might appear to be a beautiful place but behind the beauty are some of the highest numbers of sexual and domestic violence offences in the country,” he told me.

The Cumbrian Resilience Project has already attracted more than 300 members belonging to its closed social media forum. It also has free viewings of a film called RESILIENCE – The Biology of stress and the science of hope which explores the damage done to the body by the toxic trauma of  repeated adverse childhood experiences as a child and puts forward a scientific way of tackling it. Film showings this autumn will be in Carlisle, Penrith, Workington, Barrow, Eden Valley and Kendal to name but a few.

Interest has been shown by Cumbria Police, Cumbria NHS and across the care sector and the project founder is planning ACEs awareness training sessions for parents, social and care workers, and all frontline staff so they can understand what is needed to help children and adults affected by ACEs. Sessions this year are being held in Workington, Carlisle, Penrith and Barrow.

The project relies enormously on volunteers and survivor champions. But I hope when the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) moves on to discuss how to help survivors that projects like these (they are more widespread in Scotland) are advocated on a national level. The author is a Core Participant in the inquiry and hopes to have the opportunity to raise issues of ACEs at the inquiry later in the year.

Among the supporters of the project are Graham Wilmer, who runs the Lantern Project on the Wirral :

He says: “There are people out there who are trying very hard to undermine the courageous efforts of survivors of child abuse to come forward and give their testimony. Some of these individuals claim to be survivors themselves, others include a diverse range of individuals, some professionals, others just perhaps misguided folks without much else to do, who, through the advent of social media, believe they have a right to call out and abuse anyone they want to, simply because they can.

“That will change, but, in any case, they matter not. It is the voices of those who had the courage to speak truth to power that will be remembered, not the voices of those who tried to stop them.”

Another is Dr Wendy Thorley who described the book as a ” An open and unrestricted account of the impact on ACEs for not only children but adults. The bravery of the author to put this in the public arena is not unrecognised.”

I would recommend it – the author does not go for intellectual sophism – but is direct, honest and tells the unvarnished truth – and it is all the better for that.