Exclusive: London’s largest human rights law chambers backs initiative to end all discrimination against women in the UK

Garden Court Chambers

Plans for a People’s Tribunal in London later this year to hear the case for implementing the UN Convention to eliminate all discrimination against women (CEDAW) have received a huge boost after one of London’s leading international law firms have offered to work for them free of charge.

Garden Court Chambers, which has 197 barristers and 27 QC’s, and specialises in human rights cases has offered the services of six of its leading women barristers and QC’s to head up the People’s Tribunal which aims to draw up an ” oven ready ” Bill of Rights for Women which could be put into British law. All are working pro bono.

Smita Bajaria, a solicitor, is also working pro bono and will be instructing the barristers for the CEDAW tribunal.

The decision by Garden Court Chambers, to offer such a huge amount of pro bono work to the inquisitional tribunal is thought to be unprecedented in legal circles. All will be working on the preparation and presentation of the legal arguments and examine over 20 witnesses across the three day tribunal hearing.

The six QCs and barristers are:

Sonali Naik: Pic Credit: Garden Court Chambers

Sonali Naik QC

Sonali has an extensive judicial review practice in challenges to Home Office policy, trafficking and unlawful detention and has won a number of high profile cases including a landmark case which found that Priti Patel, the home secretary, had acted illegally in demanding the “instant removal” of migrants without having access to lawyers.

Amanda Weston QC:.

Amanda Weston QC

A leading expert on public and administrative law and judicial reviews and on the preferred counsel list for taking up cases for the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

Nicola Braganza. Pic Credit; Garden Court Chambers

Nicola Braganza

An expert on gender and race discrimination. Won a landmark case against the Home Office in the Supreme Court for the Public and Commercial Services Union and Prospect union over the discrimination against black and older applicants in promotion tests , winning a settlement of over £1m.

Louise Hooper Pic credit: Linked In

Louise Hooper

She is an equality and human rights lawyer with a particular expertise in cases involving child, refugee and migrant rights, sex, gender, LGBTI+, trafficking and detention. Advises the Council of Europe.

Maria Moodie Pic Credit Twitter

Maria Moodie

A specialist public law practice in the areas of community care (Adult and Children Act cases), human trafficking, migrant welfare, housing, and immigration and asylum law.

GraceBrown Pic credit: Legal 500

Grace Brown

She commenced practice in 1995 inspired by the desire to promote the rights of the under privileged and disadvantaged and quickly established herself as a well-respected and busy human rights and immigration barrister. She is on the preferred list of Lawyers for the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

A statement from the CEDAW People’s tribunal said : “Every woman and girl born in the UK should be able to realise, as of right, her true potential.

“There is no reason why CEDAW cannot be transposed into domestic law and the delay in doing so is nothing short of unconscionable.

OUR GOALS

• A published Report out of the tribunal hearing signed-off by the Independent Panel of Judges

• Instructions for a Women’s Bill of Rights

• A film of the journey

• Roadshow e-Drop-Ins

The CEDAW Peoples Tribunal will leave a lasting legacy by providing a body of evidence for individuals, women’s campaign groups and politicians to hold governments to account.

This will lead to changes in laws and the creation of new laws to bring about a Women’s Bill of Rights and substantive, transformative equality for all women and girls.”

The tribunal website is here.

Labour: Revival or Nemesis?

Sir Keir Starmer: Labour leader Pic credit: BBC

Labour needs popular policies that attract people from Carlisle to Camden

It would rather cruel to say Sir Keir Starmer named after Labour founder Keir Hardie should be the leader that led to its nemesis. But the weekend’s election results in the North East and the Midlands show it is Boris Johnson’s Conservatives that are the new champions of working class voters there not Labour.

That is not to belittle Labour’s achievements in Wales, Cambridgeshire, the West of England and the South Coast. In Worthing for example, Labour has gone from having no councillors there for 51 years, to a place where the Tories are reduced to a majority of just one.

But it is to say that Labour have lost the plot. They are fighting quite a different Tory Party than under Theresa May or David Cameron and they don’t seem to have got the message. This Tory Party is a high spending, interventionist party wrapped up in the trappings of Rule Britannia and law and order. It is prepared to spend loads of cash in targeted working class areas where it can garner votes and is happy for an image of Gunboats at Dawn with the French in Jersey over fishing rights knowing that a NATO ally is unlikely to open fire.

For Labour there is a choice it can either ape the flag waving ,law and order, overseas aid cutting agenda of the Tories or it could look for new ground to take on the changed Tory Party.

I have four ideas for the latter and they all affect millions of people whether they live in the North, Midlands or South of the country. If successfully implemented they could change hearts and minds.

Having a decent affordable home for Generation Rent

The first is finding a home to live. For younger people under the age of 40 this is rapidly becoming an unobtainable dream as house prices continue to surge way above wages. They are either stuck in expensive flat sharing or forced to continue living in their parent’s home. No chance to aspire to start a family there. And with little council house building social housing is not easily available for the poor.

For a real analysis of this problem read a book called Home Truths by Liam Halligan. It is a comprehensive analysis of what has gone wrong. Labour could do little better than plagiarise the ideas in this book as part of their manifesto.

The Tories – though promising to build more homes- are on the back foot on this one. Their second largest group of donors are property developers – whose rationale has to be to get the most profits for their shareholders and investors. This, as the book explains, means ensuring that house prices continue to rise and they will only rise if they drip feed rather than grossly expand house building. So here’s one policy that will appeal whether you are in Brighton or Barnsley- and it can be sloganised in simple terms as it is both aspirational and a basic need.

Time for Labour to embrace the new world of freelance working

The second is the new world of work. The old huge battalions of workers in the mines, shipyards and even steel no longer exist – the new world of work is often hi tech , freelance contracts or new businesses or low paid work in Amazon or Deliveroo. Yet neither the outdated national insurance system nor employment law helps them. Ed Miliband promised a small step in reforming national insurance under his leadership – to ensure at least the self employed millions got basic help. And this group were the worst off under the furlough scheme. Again the government is weak in this area and whether you have a start up in Maidenhead or Middlesbrough you will benefit.

Women’s rights

Then there is the equality issue -particularly for women. Johnson is not particularly popular among women. And women are half the electorate. There are still issues of inequality, low pay and a law and order issue over women’s safety – so a women’s bill of rights to end injustice and make them safer in the streets would be very popular.

Equal access to the green revolution

Finally there is the issue of green policies. Yes the government is committed to these – but will help be distributed fairly or will electric cars be the prerogative for the better off. There is an area where carefully pointing out the problems and promising to do something about it will be attractive.

These are just some ides.. But whatever happens Labour has to up its game and get out of this continual internal battle talking to themselves and talk to the voters instead. Otherwise it will lead to its traditional male working class voters permanently voting Conservative and its more left wing voters backing the Green Party. It could disappear down a hole in the middle if it doesn’t get its act together and decide what it stands for.

Exclusive: What’s missing for women’s rights in the UK: Former judge Dr Jocelynne Scutt and former chief prosecutor Nazil Afzal talk about CEDAW

Dr Jocelynne Scutt, President of panel of judges of the CEDAW People’s tribunal , Nazir Afzal Legal Consultant to the tribunal

Two of the leading people talk in advance of the planned People’s Tribunal in London

Later this year there will be a People’s Tribunal in London to evaluate the need for the UN Convention on the elimination of all discrimination against women to be put into domestic law. The convention, signed and ratified by Margaret Thatcher in 1986 has never been put into domestic law though parts of it are in the Equalities Act, 2010.

The tribunal will examine the failure to integrate CEDAW into domestic legislation; decide whether those delays are legitimate or not; and make necessary recommendations as to how the Convention can be given full effect in the UK, advancing women in all aspects of society and recognising historic inequalities.

Dr Jocelynne Scutt, the Australian feminist who is president of the panel of judges CEDAW People’s Tribunal and Nazir Afzal, newly appointed Legal Consultant to the tribunal. have talked about their hopes for a massive legal change.

Jocelynne Scutt is a senior law fellow at the University of Buckingham. She was Tasmania’s first anti discrimination commissioner and is a member of the Labour Party in Cambridge and the Australian Labor Party. She is a former judge in Fiji.

Nazil Afzal, is the former Chief Crown Prosecutor for NW England and formerly Director in London. Most recently, he was Chief Executive of the country’s Police & Crime Commissioners. During 24 year career, has prosecuted many high profile cases and advised on many others and led nationally on Violence against Women & Girls, child sexual abuse, and honour based violence. His prosecutions of the so called Rochdale grooming gang and hundreds of others were groundbreaking and drove the work that has changed the landscape of child protection. He is the new legal consultant to the tribunal.

Jocelynne Scutt believes there are many cases -particularly those involving violence against women and rape cases- where women are still not seen as credible because of prejudice or the way they dress. She points to protests from women groups over rape cases with placards saying ” Wearing a dress does not mean yes” as a good example of the way women are treated by men. She says this is similar to the ” stop and search” policy by the police where just because a black man is driving a posh car it is assumed it is either stolen or he is a drug dealer.

She said one of the big changes CEDAW could bring is to change the law to make people treated as a whole human being instead of being categorised in different legal columns. She cited a discrimination case brought on both sex and gender and racial discrimination.

” The law as it is either treats the case as a sex and gender case with a bit of ethnicity added on or a an ethnicity discrimination case with a bit of gender discrimination. People are not like that.”

The standard in courts is still based on ” Benchmark Man”

She says courts are still dominated by white male values despite the fact we have more women barristers and judges. ” As one of my colleagues says the standard is Benchmark Man- that is still the standard for everything.”

She thinks that middle class women have an advantage over working class women to progress in their careers.

” Middle class women in professional jobs can get through the glass ceiling or at least see it . For working class women – such as cleaners and care workers – they are stopped by a concrete canopy- they can’t even see the glass ceiling let alone break through it” This is something that CEDAW would change.

Both she and Nazil Afzal believe CEDAW will bring about big changes. She is optimistic that support for CEDAW will build and build to become a major issue.

Nazil believes there is no legal impediment to introducing CEDAW only a political one. He also believes that if Scotland and Wales decide to implement CEDAW while England declines to do so – it ” will lead to an even greater postcode lottery in judicial decisions than it is now.

” Probably only one per cent of lawyers understand CEDAW”

He believes that at present the vast majority of lawyers don’t understand CEDAW even though its is recognised by the courts as international law.

” Probably only one per cent of lawyers -unless it is their speciality – don’t understand it and probably among that one per cent only one per cent understand it fully “

He thinks the passing of the Domestic Abuse Bill has made the case for putting CEDAW into domestic law and also for the United Kingdom to sign up to the Council of Europe Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic abuse.

Some 45 countries have signed up and 34 have ratified the convention. The UK is not one – one of the stumbling blocks for the UK is that it would have to give migrants equal rights.

CEDAW: Scotland and Wales to implement UN Convention on women’s rights if SNP and Welsh Labour win the election

Nicola Sturgeon SNP L,eader Pic Credit BBC

Ground breaking moves to end all discrimination against women could become law in Scotland and Wales by next year if as predicted, the Scottish National Party and the Welsh Labour Party win Thursday’s devolved Parliamentary elections.

Manifestos for both parties commit them to introducing the CEDAR convention into Scottish and Welsh law and the Scottish Tory leader, Douglas Ross, has also given his support to write the convention into Scottish law.

The decision will have far reaching effects on the equality and rights of women and put huge pressure on Boris Johnson, the Tory leader, and Liz Truss, who is also equalities minister, to have to follow them or face a postcode lottery on women’s rights across the UK. It will also be an enormous boost to the planned People’s Tribunal on CEDAW to be held later in London.

The issue has not made the headlines because it has been overshadowed by the row over Scottish independence and the funding of Boris Johnson’s flat which have dominated the news. But it has implications for equal pay, violence against women, job discrimination and could resurrect unfair treatment over the raising of the pension age again.

Far reaching proposals

The Scottish proposals are the most far reaching. Not only do they want to end all discrimination against women but they also want to implement three other UN Conventions which have not been put into law by the British government.

These cover: The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Scotland has already passed laws to implement the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into domestic law

. This has infuriated Boris Johnson and he is going to the Supreme Court to stop Scotland implementing it -saying it is beyond Holyrood’s powers.

But he can’t do anything about the CEDAR convention because Margaret Thatcher signed and ratified the convention in 1986. Unless he decides the UK will leave the convention which would create a storm.

Fraser Meechan from the Scottish Government’s Equality and Human Rights division, said in a letter to Ann Fenner, communications leader to CEDAW tribunal ; “The intention, dependent on the election outcome, is to introduce the proposed Bill in the next Parliamentary session. A multi-treaty human rights Bill of this nature is innovative and ambitious. Therefore, careful thought and extensive engagement will be required, both during its development and throughout implementation, to ensure it is done right.”

A task force is already working on the details of the legislation.

Wales for CEDAW

The Welsh manifesto commitment means the Wales will follow on CEDAR.

The move has caused the Government Equalities Office in London to start meetings with women’s groups on what changes they would like to see in England – as they are now aware of the proposals in both Scotland and Wales. This is the first time the Government Equalities Office has had regular meetings on CEDAW beyond the UK commitment to review progress on CEDAW every four years.

So what started as a move to open a debate on women’s rights through the CEDAW People’s Tribunal has now turned into a serious and urgent issue for Whitehall and ministers. The decision by Nicola Sturgeon to do this is a gamechanger that will have repercussions across the whole of the UK.

Local elections: Will the citizens of Salisbury revolt this week? Is it a new trend?

Ex Tory minister and MP for Salisbury Robert Key is one of the people supporting the Independent revolt. This is one of five podcasts he did criticising the system.

City’s former loyalist Tory MP and minister backs the revolt

UPDATED: The newly formed Independents did win their first seat on the council with Annie Riddle winning a seat in Harnham. But the other candidates failed to win a seat. However the composition of the council has change radically. It was 15 Conservatives, five Labour, one Liberal Democrat, one Independent. It is now no longer a Tory majority council. The new council is now 11 Conservative, 6 Labour, 6 Liberal Democrat and one Independent.

The City of Salisbury is not a natural place to start a revolution. Indeed in the seventeenth century it staged a Royalist revolt against Cromwell and kidnapped its High Sherriff. The last Bishop of Salisbury to be murdered by an unruly mob was William Ayscough in 1450. And apart from the horrendous Novichok murder and attempted poisonings by Russian spies it is not a place normally associated with sudden dramas.

So it is all the more surprising that this city of 45,000 people which has returned Conservative MPs without fail since 1924 should suddenly be facing a challenge to its Tory status quo in this week’s local elections.

And even more extraordinary that a man who is advocating change is former Tory minister and a long standing former Tory MP for Salisbury, Robert Key. One of the most loyal Tories for over 50 years he now says ” in his old age he is becoming a revolutionary.”

The reason for this sudden grass roots rebellion is local government reform. Whereas much is said about devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, at the local level power is being taken away from England’s towns and small cities like Salisbury, by the creation of mammoth unitary authorities like Wiltshire and Dorset. And more are to come soon in further local government reform. So Wiltshire is governed by officials in Trowbridge, Dorset by Dorchester etc.

It also does seem extraordinary that a city with a cathedral should have no more power than a small rural village parish council in remote Lincolnshire.

Salisbury Cathedral

Judging from public reaction many people agree. A brand new Facebook page called Save our Salisbury (SOS) has attracted 2600 members and an energetic former journalist and sub editor, Annie Riddle, is among eight Independent candidates standing for the City council. There is also an independent, an ex detective inspector, Mike Rees, challenging the Tory police commissioner for Wiltshire

The current 23 member council has 16 Tories, 5 Labour and one Liberal Democrat. By putting one independent in each of the eight wards – the candidates are telling people to give one of their three votes ( in most cases) to an Independent and not a political party.

What’s the point?

Annie Riddle says in her own blog; “all the main parties have had trouble putting up a full complement of candidates for the local elections in May – largely, I think, because people are disillusioned and ask: “What’s the point?”
Now I’m going to put my money where my mouth is, so to speak, and try to do something to help our community by standing as an independent candidate for the city council in Harnham.”

And it seems to be admitted by the Tories themselves with people like John Brady, former chair of Salisbury Conservative Association saying:

“It is the officers who make the decisions (recommendations). They know that councillors are transient and as with Harnham, where councillors persuaded them to take a proposed development off the Strategic Plan, officers reinstated it as soon as they could when dealing with a different councillor (cabinet member). “All the ‘consultation’ that has to be done is a complete waste of time as I know that this is merely a way of allowing locals to let off steam.”

The situation in Salisbury is not unique. Pressed by issues like houses left empty and an unpopular road closure scheme and people having no say are among the local flash points. A number of small towns in other parts of England are doing the same.

Revolts in other towns

Frome in Somerset in 2015 replaced all its Conservative councillors with Independents for Frome and re-elected them again in 2019. Alderley Edge First in Cheshire did the same – re-electing them on a 42 per cent poll ( high for a parish council) in 2019. Uttlesford near Stansted Airport in Essex, is an Independent majority council – the impetus being concern over the expansion of Stansted Airport.

And some have taken seats from Labour controlled councils such as Ashfield in Nottinghamshire and the mayor of Middlesbrough where an Independent took over from a Labour mayor.

In the last large scale local elections in England in 2019 – across the country Independents gained 250 seats – while the Conservative and Labour parties fell back.

National interest in this year’s elections will be on how Labour and Tories do – whether it is Tory gains in ” Red Wall” seats in the North and Midlands – or whether Labour can make gains elsewhere. The Liberal Democrats and Greens performances will be analysed in areas where they made progress last time.

But beneath all this lies a generally unreported interesting trend in towns and cities – local people standing on local issues – often revolting against the major parties and Big Brother councils in places miles away from where people live. Who said democracy was dead?

Gove kicks reform of the Parliamentary Ombudsman service into the long grass

Official portrait of Chloe Smith MP and Cabinet Office minister for the constitution and devolution

Government dumps on Parliamentary Ombudsman as waiting list of cases forecast to rise to 4000

The government has thrown out any proposals to reform the overburdened Parliamentary Ombudsman service until after the next General Election in 2024.

A reply from Chloe Smith, junior Cabinet Office minister, to MPs on the Commons Public Administration Committee on their report into the Parliamentary Ombudsman reveals that reforms far from being delayed a year will not take place until 2025.

She writes:” The Government appreciates the desire of PACAC to modernise Ombudsman standards and agrees that this is an important matter. As outlined by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster[ Michael Gove] in September 2020, the current pressures on the Government and the parliamentary timetable mean the 2016 Bill has not progressed and there are no plans to reform the Ombudsman system up to and including 2023–24. We will nonetheless carefully consider the committee’s findings and any future opportunities.”

The decision to delay any improvements to the service come at a time when there are 2663 cases waiting to be allocated and long delays for people awaiting to hear the result of their cases.

At the same time minutes of a board meeting at the Ombudsman’s office on February 18 and only just published reveals that the waiting list for cases to be allocated is forecast to rise to 4000. This is entirely due to complaInts arising from relatives of Covid 19 victims.

The report said: “It was proposed that, to allow the organisation to focus on complaints raising more serious issues, it would not routinely progress health complaints where the impact of the claimed injustice is relatively limited. This would apply to complaints determined to be at level 1 and level 2 of our Severity of Injustice scale. This is in line with other Ombudsman organisations.”

Relatives of Covid 19 victims not likely to get their complaint investigated

This is bad news for relatives of Covid 19 victims who are already been denied justice by Boris Johnson choosing to delay a Covid-19 public inquiry. It also raises the question how the Ombudsman would know a complaint was a serious problem until he had investigated it.

Sir Rob Behrens Parliamentary Ombudsman

Sir Robert Behrens, Parliamentary Ombudsman, in his reply to the committee suggests he might try and persuade Matt Hancock, the health secretary, to allow some changes to the Ombudsman’s powers in forthcoming legislation to reform the NHS.

He writes: “The forthcoming NHS legislation could also grant PHSO ‘own initiative’ powers to look at an NHS-related issue where someone would struggle to bring a complaint or where there is a fear that complaining to the Ombudsman might bring about personal repercussions in terms of the NHS care received. For example, if someone is a long-term inpatient with learning disabilities, they or their family may be reluctant to complain formally for fear that it would adversely affect that person’s care.
“PHSO would welcome the Committee’s support for including these measures in the legislation that will follow the NHS Integration and Innovation White Paper. We would also welcome similar support for removing the out-dated MP filter and making other improvements in our Parliamentary jurisdiction when appropriate legislative opportunities arise.”

So the Ombudsman is left clutching at straws to get any reform at all. The public are left with a lousy service and the prospect of complaints being dumped because the Ombudsman will not have the resources to cope.

My thanks to a couple of readers for alerting me to the board meeting and the government’s reply. It is nice to know people are keeping an eye on this

The Pensions Regulator: The most unwanted job in the government

Hidden husband and wife conflict of interest revealed for winning candidate

Last week almost unreported MPs on the Commons Work and Pensions Committee approved the appointment of a new chair of the Pensions Regulator. It went to Sarah Smart -already the interim chair.

Nothing particularly newsworthy in that. But the report from MPs went on to disclose the dearth of interest in this important job and expose until now a hitherto hidden serious conflict of interest that affects the entire board of the Pensions Regulator.

The regulation of private pensions in the private sector affects tens of millions of people. As the report says:

Its main responsibilities include:
a) Ensuring that employers put their staff into a pension scheme (known as
automatic enrolment) and pay money into the scheme;
b) Protecting people’s savings in workplace pension schemes;
c) Improving the way that workplace pension schemes are run;
d) Ensuring that employers balance the needs of their pension scheme with growing
their business;
e) Reducing the risk of pension schemes ending up in the Pension Protection Fund,
a statutory fund which protects members of defined benefit pension schemes if
their scheme becomes insolvent.

Pension scams

It also pays a role in keeping an eye on pension scams and firms going bust leaving people without proper pensions. The MPs say they have previously been concerned about its role in some high profile cases involving defined benefit schemes whose sponsoring employer had become insolvent. ” We ourselves have expressed concern this year about
TPR’s capacity—working alongside other regulators—to tackle pension scams effectively.” These cases include tax exile Sir Philip Green’s treatment of the British Home Stores Pension Fund and the British Steel pension fund.

Therefore it is rather shocking to discover that this £75,000 a year part time job for the public face of the Pensions Regulator attracted just eight applicants – and that was after extending the application period. Three were not worth interviewing. Of the remaining five who were interviewed – three were thought to be inappropriate for the job. This left the choice of just two people – Sarah Smart and another.

Indeed so low were the number of applications that the Department for Work and Pensions can’t provide a breakdown of the gender, disability and ethnicity of the applicants – for fear that it will end up disclosing who applied.

Fraser Smart -chief executive of BA Pensions – conflict of interest with his wife’s new appointment Pic credit: Twitter

But worse was to follow. Sarah Smart’s application for the job disclosed that her husband Fraser Smart was chief executive of British Airways Pensions and chair of British Airways Pension Investment Management Ltd – the body responsible for investing the money of thousands of employees of the airline. The BA Pension scheme is one of the bodies Sarah Smart is supposed to supervise- an obvious conflict of interest with her husband as chief executive of a blue chip company pension scheme.

She has promised that her husband will resign his job before September and not take any other job involving managing a pension scheme.

It was then discovered that NONE of the members of the board of The Pensions Regulator have to declare whether their partners or close relatives run company pension schemes – which has forced a review of the code of conduct of the regulator.

Guy Opperman, pensions minister couldn’t even be bothered to meet Sarah Smart before he recommended her for the job Pic credit: Twitter

Ministerial interest in the running of the Pension Regulator is virtually non existent. Guy Opperman, the pensions minister, couldn’t be bothered even to meet the new chair before he appointed her. As the MPs say in their report:

“We were surprised to hear that Mrs Smart had not met the Pensions Minister before being chosen for this role. We urge them to arrange a meeting at the earliest possible opportunity.”

The MPs also fired a warning shot about the conflict of interest: “We are conscious, however, that—given wider economic uncertainty—her spouse’s situation may change. In that event, we would urge TPR, the Pensions Minister and Mrs Smart herself to consider whether she can remain in her role.”

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.

Whitehall embarrassment: How the DWP took 16 months to respond to a MPs report that single mums were turning to “survival sex” because of Universal Credit

It was a subject of great embarrassment to officials at the Department for Work and Pensions. A prominent committee of Mps then chaired by the Independent MP, Frank Field, decided to hold an inquiry into why people having to wait five weeks to get their first Universal Credit payment were turning to offer sexual services to men to make ends meet.

That is not the sort of news that people responsible for the ministry’s flagship benefit wanted to hear. So they sent what MPs called a “defensive, dismissive and trite” submission. Instead of wanting to know why this might be happening the officials immediately tried to dismiss the idea.

As the MPs say: “The Department’s first written response to our inquiry addressed the narrow question of whether there is a “direct causative link” between Universal Credit and “prostitution”. The Department displayed little interest in either the lived experience of claimants or the expertise of frontline support organisations.” Indeed, officials tried to blame everything but the benefit, citing drug addiction, the rise of AirBnB, even EU immigration.

Then matters took an unexpected turn. Will Quince, the junior minister for family support and benefit delivery took against his officials. As the report said: the committee held “an evidence panel in private with B, K, M and T: four women who are, or have been, involved in survival sex or sex work.”

“Given our concerns about the Department’s engagement with our inquiry, we invited the Minister for Family Support, Housing and Child Maintenance, Will Quince MP (the Minister), to attend our private panel with B, K, M and T. We hoped that hearing directly from people with lived experience of the relationships between sex work, “survival sex” and UC would help the Department to better understand the issues.”

The evidence was graphic:”I am about to be moved on to Universal Credit. I will lose £200 a month, approximately […] The thought of going into debt and having no money is really frightening. I have children. I can’t do that. I will sell my body. – K”

“I am about to be moved on to Universal Credit. I will lose £200 a month. The thought of going into debt and having no money is frightening I will sell my body”

“I didn’t go out looking for it, I said no at first. It wasn’t until about three weeks later
that I said ‘OK, yeah,’ because I thought I need to, because I need money […] It was
during the eight weeks that I was waiting to get the Universal Credit. I couldn’t wait
eight weeks for money. I just couldn’t. – Julie”

Will quince MP and DWP minister: Pic credit: willquince.com

It changed the minister’s mind and he wrote a letter to the committee apologising for his official’s submission, He wrote a letter to the committee praising the bravery of the people who came forward and in evidence later made it clear that he disagreed with his officials submission. The submission was revised.

The report came out in October 2019 and it proposed some practical ways to change the situation – particularly ending the now 5 week delay before people can get any money. The ministry has tweaked the rules and allowed people to take out loans which they have to start paying back after three months and they are reducing the maximum amount each month that has to be repaid. But the ministry will not budge over the wait. Fast forward 16 months and the ministry have finally replied to the MPs now with a new chair, Labour MP Stephen Timms. Earlier this week he commented: “The experiences of survival sex heard by the last committee act as a reminder of the hugely damaging impact that the wait for a first Universal Credit payment has been having on so many for so long. The Government’s latest rejection of constructive proposals for cutting the five week wait goes down as another wasted opportunity to rectify the harm it is causing to many vulnerable people.”

The reply, in my view, also tried to evade the issue. They have written a new guide. As their response said:

“The Department has developed a new Universal Credit Detailed Help and Support Guide for stakeholders, partners and support organisations to help vulnerable claimants get the financial and practical support they need, including helping them to make a claim for Universal Credit.

The new guide has been drafted and designed by working in collaboration with key stakeholders, including organisations who provide support and other areas where further detailed information is deemed beneficial.”

New DWP guide still not published

Unfortunately it is still to be published. On the specific issue the response said:

“Our Work Coaches are trained to encourage disclosure in the most complex and sensitive
of situations. This includes domestic abuse, modern slavery and immigration concerns.
We deliver this type of support daily across our jobcentres.”..The acts of buying and selling sex are not in themselves illegal in England and Wales. However, there are many activities that can be associated with prostitution which constitute offences.”

It goes on to talk about modern slavery and sex trafficking which are serious issues. But I feel it still doesn’t address the main point – the problem people have feeding their family while they wait five weeks for their first payment. My feeling is that the officials are still embarrassed by these revelations. The women involved are not slaves nor are they being used as sex traffickers – they are desperate for money and this is an extreme example of what happens when they are. It brings it back to the very issue officials won’t talk about – the structure of Universal Credit.

The Tories pathetic and divisive start to their promised target for 100 per cent electric cars by 2035

Mercedes EQC electric car at the Paris Motor Show: pic credit: Wikipedia

Government under fire from the NAO as Which? reveals extra costs of electric cars

This month two reports – one from the National Audit Office and another from the consumer organisation Which? – put the government’s ” Green agenda” promise to cease internal combustion engine production in 2030 and end hybrid- electric/petrol and diesel production by 2035 to a savage test.

Read together they show the government’s programme is severely wanting and so far made little impact despite all the hype of adopting a Green agenda. The public have started buying electric cars in appreciable numbers – sales were up 162 per cent to 86,291 for the first 11 months of last year according to Which? But that is still a minute proportion of the 32.9 million cars registered in the UK. They amount according to the NAO to eight per cent of new car sales.

The NAO report produces some damning figures on the environmental impact of all this. The result has been pathetic – just a 1 per cent cut in carbon emissions in the ten years since subsidies for green cars were started. Carbon emissions actually rose between 2016 and 2019 as people went for more sporty vehicles and SUVs and road traffic increased. Hardly a good omen.

Massive divide between those with drives and those who are drive less

But there is also another story which suggests that the ” electric car ” will be the new divide between the rich, the middle class and the young and poor. To get best value from an electric car you need a home charger. If you have a big drive – no problem and you can even get a government greant of £350 to install one.

But one third of home owners and tenants live not in semi detached and detached homes but in terraced houses and flats. There is nowhere to install a charger on their property – they will have to rely on public charging in the street.

And the scheme to install public chargers in the streets has been a miserable failure. The NAO reveal that:

“By the end of March 2020, government funding had contributed towards the installation of 133,336 home charging points;8,578 workplace charging points; and 690 on-street charging points.”

This pathetic last figure for on street charging has partly been caused by the government itself – according to the NAO claiming the money from the ministry is so complicated that local councils have partly given up – the £8.5m budget for this has been underused by 32 per cent over the last three years.

Private companies have fared better according to the Which? report there were 20,823 publicly accessible charging points in 13,185 locations by mid December last year.

Damning findings from Which? on costs

There are some damning findings from Which? which heighten the divide even further. Yes you can save money on fuel bills by going electric but only if you have your own charger. “ If you don’t have regular access to private charging facilities it could cost you more to run overall than a full hybrid model or even a conventional petrol or diesel car.”

And worse if you have hybrid model Which? says don’t trust the fuel economy figures from the manufacturers.“Our own fuel economy tests show that real-world costs are on average an astronomical 252 per cent more expensive than manufacturer claims, across all the models we tested.”

Seat Mii electric car – £409 extra a year from public charging.

And there is more for the poorer car owner with no access to their own charger.

” The cost of fully charging the average electric vehicle is 97 per cent more expensive than the average UK fixed-price home energy tariff, not including special rates or incentives aimed at electric car owners” And it is big money Which? estimates it would add £409 to annual fuel costs for a tiny city car such as the Seat Mii electric or around £653 for a full sized SUV such as the Mercedes EQC.

All this suggests that the government is going to need a big rethink to get to its target as both the NAO and the Commons Public Accounts Committee chair agree.

Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Committee of Public Accounts says:

“Government has made some headway in promoting electric cars. But they are still not an affordable or practical option for most people.

The vast majority of charging points are for private off-street parking. Not everyone has a driveway to charge their car. And reducing emissions shouldn’t be a luxury reserved for the middle classes.

This can’t be a pie in the sky ambition – government must urgently develop a real plan if it wants electric cars to comprise 100% of new sales by 2035.”

I agree – otherwise it will just be another example of government hype.