You try working in a cake shop, Mr Cameron

Independent on Sunday, 26 February 2012

I’ve worked in shops. I’ve bagged doughnuts, stacked shelves and been sacked from a Saturday job in a boutique. What did I learn from this experience? That I’m good at mental arithmetic and hopeless at persuading women to buy clothes that don’t suit them. Oh, and that the boredom would have been intolerable without a pay packet at the end of the week.

Years after I’d given up shop work, a legal minimum wage seemed to me one of the flagship achievements of Tony Blair’s government. I felt like flipping two fingers at bosses who whined that they couldn’t afford it, as though labour costs came bottom of their priorities.

Then David Cameron’s government offered businesses a legal means of getting round the minimum wage. Dozens of high-street names signed up to provide a “work experience” scheme lasting up to eight weeks; they’d have thousands of young unemployed people providing free labour in their stores while the state paid them £53.45 a week in jobseekers’ allowance. No one seemed to mind that taxpayers were subsiding profitable companies such as Tesco – pre-tax profit £1.9bn in the six months to August last year – and T K Maxx.

Until a nationwide campaign against “workfare” took off, participating companies were getting up to 30 hours’ unpaid work from each individual who took part in the scheme – a weekly saving of more than £180 if they took on an unemployed 21-year-old. Anyone who left after a week risked losing benefits, undermining the Government’s claim that the scheme was entirely voluntary. Now, following a blizzard of bad publicity, T K Maxx, Argos, Superdrug, and Burger King have withdrawn from the scheme. Several charities have suspended their involvement, and Tesco has offered to pay anyone taking part.

The Prime Minister is furious. In a speech last week, he attacked “dangerous” anti-business hysteria and claims about “slave labour”, bringing along the Prince of Wales as a fine example of someone on a work experience scheme. Social commentators joined in, accusing opponents of being snobs who find the whole idea of working in a shop demeaning.

It’s hard to think of a more bone-headed accusation. It should be levelled at the companies that offer these “jobs”, preferring to have their shelves stacked and floors swept by people they’re too mean to pay. What dignity can there be in work when the business offering it values it so little? And then there’s the knock-on effect: why would a high-street store pay the minimum wage when the company next door is getting free labour, thanks to the Government?

We’re seeing a return to the notion of the “deserving poor”, who have to demonstrate that they’re worthy of State support through displays of meekness and deference. It’s an ideology that gets Tory MPs swooning, even though there’s little evidence that such  schemes work. Cameron told MPs last week that around half the people on work experience are “actually getting work” at the end of it, but the organisation Full Fact looked at the Government’s figures and concluded that there did not seem to be an “adequate basis” for the claim.

The Prime Minister may be getting carried away by his own rhetoric, announcing last week that business is “the most powerful force for social progress the world has ever known”. There speaks a man who’s never worked an eight-hour shift behind the counter in a cake shop.


Met Police ‘let down rape victims to protect reputation’

Leveson Inquiry hears astonishing claim by former police chief

Tuesday 28 February 2012

A report critical of the way the Metropolitan Police handled rape cases in London was  ‘watered down’ to protect the force’s reputation, according to evidence given to the inquiry yesterday. Former deputy assistant commissioner Brian Paddick told the inquiry he was asked in 2005 by the then Commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, to review how rape cases were investigated by the Metropolitan Police Service. ‘Performance was patchy and he wanted the best in the world’, Paddick says in his witness statement.

Paddick looked at a period between 2001/2 and 2004/5, which would have included the early crimes of the so-called black-cab rapist, John Worboys. Worboys was convicted of 12 rapes in 2009 but police believe he was attacking women as long ago as 2002, and that the total number of his victims may have been more than 100.

Paddick’s review revealed ‘serious shortcomings’ and made ‘strong recommendations’. Specifically, he says it showed a large increase in the number of rape allegations but a similar fall [my italics] in the percentage of allegations classified as rape by the police. He recommended ‘a consistently victim-centred approach’ to investigating rape allegations in London.

According to Paddick, the report caused alarm at the Met. His witness statement claims that senior officers were concerned about damage to the force’s reputation and he was ‘told to tone down’ the criticisms and ‘water-down the recommendations’. The final report looked at only two months in 2005 and ‘sidestepped any criticism’ of the force. Shortly afterwards, Paddick asked a Met press officer what she’d been asked to do with his report. Her job, she told him, was to make sure it got no coverage.

‘The service the MPS provided to rape victims was sacrificed in favour of the MPS’ reputation’, Paddick’s witness statement (now available on the Leveson Inquiry website) says bluntly.

Ocuupy London struck a chord. But world events overtook its message

The movement has been better at saying what it is against than at offering solution

The Independent, Thursday 23 February 2012

When I heard yesterday that another court had ruled  gainst the Occupy London protest outside St Paul’s cathedral, I had to think for a moment. After dominating headlines for weeks last autumn, the camp hasn’t been in the news much lately and I’d almost forgotten it was still there.

It isn’t that the economic crisis has gone away, but a raft of other stories has seized our attention, including much more ferocious protests against austerity measures in Greece. When some 20,000 homeless people are sleeping on the streets of Athens, the impact of a mostly voluntary encampment in another country – I know some homeless people are there as well – is inevitably reduced.

The Occupy London camp faces being dismantled after yesterday’s appeal court ruling that the protesters cannot challenge an earlier eviction order. I’m sure the protesters and their supporters are angry about the decision, but I’m not at all clear what would be achieved by remaining in situ. Despite the elevated rhetoric that accompanied the setting up of the camp, its main impact was always symbolic – and that’s lessening by the day.

To begin with, the presence of tents outside St Paul’s was new and striking, pitting makeshift structures against the backdrop of one of London’s most majestic buildings. Once the Church authorities got involved, it was possible to interpret the scene as a metaphor for the struggle between a species of homespun decency and the institutional power of the Church, even if that represented a diversion of energy away from the protesters’ original target, the City. But familiarity has its effect: in Exeter last month, I didn’t even notice the protest camp at the side of the cathedral until someone pointed it out.

The protesters outside St Paul’s say they’ve dealt with the sanitation problems that accompany such temporary living arrangements, although I expect some people who live and work in the area will be glad to see the camp go on those grounds alone. There will always be romantics who disregard such matters and believe the camp offers a devastating critique of greed and casino capitalism, but the political reality is less easy to decipher. I’ve even heard supporters of the Occupy movement credit it with getting the world talking about financial injustice, at a moment when news bulletins were already full of little else.

Occupy London struck a chord because it seized attention at a moment when popular anger towards bankers, politicians and financial institutions was white hot. The removal of Fred Goodwin’s knighthood was a belated acknowledgement of a public mood that has long wanted to see individuals suffer for the financial anxiety people currently feel, whether they fear losing their own jobs and or see school-leavers unable to find one. But such gestures are problematic, producing a spasm of satisfaction which quickly dissipates.

For many of its supporters, I suspect, Occupy London represented exactly that feeling that something was wrong and somebody ought to do something about it. It gave their anger and anxiety a focus, temporarily dispelling the powerlessness individuals feel in the middle of a huge financial crisis. I was struck by tweets from camps around the country which showed a sense of real community emerging; when people are fed up and broke, everyday life in a camp – setting up cleaning rotas, deciding what to eat, explaining the ropes to new members – has a very high feel-good factor.

The risk is that those activities become an end in themselves. A distrust of conventional politics means that cumbersome pseudo-democratic structures emerge, endowed with grand titles but slowing down decision-making in a way that would paralyse a functioning democracy. These utopian models might work for 30 people or 300, but they’re useless for countries where someone – preferably an elected representative – has to take decisions about more important matters than whose turn it is to collect the rubbish.

If the Occupy movement was willing to accept that its impact has been mainly symbolic, I wouldn’t have an argument with it. Last autumn, the protest outside St Paul’s captured a widespread sense of anger and provided images that cheered people up, as demonstrations and marches have been able to do since time immemorial. (I remember how cheerful I felt on the big march against the Iraq war in February 2003, and look where that ended up.) But it’s been much better at saying what it’s against than at coming up with practical solutions, and that’s one of several reasons why people have lost interest in it.

Direct action is a great way to grab headlines and popularise slogans, which Occupy did very successfully towards the end of last year. But direct action has its limits and, in this country, the movement came up against them some time ago. Other world events –a threatened default in Greece, carnage in Syria – have taken over the headlines, while a growing popular movement against the Government’s ill-conceived NHS reforms has come to the fore in the UK. One of the most important lessons in politics is knowing when to go graciously.


Believe it or not, prayer has no place in democracy

Independent on Sunday, 19 February 2012

Imagine that you’re at the dentist. You discuss the treatment, settle back in the chair, open your mouth – and the dentist announces she’s invited the local vicar to say prayers before proceeding. Wouldn’t that seem weird, not to say annoying and inappropriate? A dentist’s surgery is not a place of worship and neither is a council chamber, despite all the hot air that’s been generated in the past few days about the “right” of believers to hold prayers during council meetings.

Entertaining though it is to hear so many bad arguments – I think God needs someone else to do his PR, instead of relying on Eric Pickles, Baroness Warsi and the Daily Mail – this isn’t an argument about believers’ human rights. It’s about religious people expecting to hold on to privileges they can’t justify, except by saying they’ve enjoyed them since time immemorial. Are they seriously claiming Christianity is under threat  because a court ruled that prayers can’t be an agenda item at council meetings? Now Pickles claims he’s overturned the ruling. As the American satirist Jon Stewart said last week in a different context: “You’ve confused the war on your religion with not always getting everything you want.”

The thing about secularists – and some secularists are believers – is that we get the difference. The Bideford council case wasn’t about an atheist councillor demanding to assert his non-belief in front of religious colleagues, any more than I insist that the historic oppression of women should be part of the official business at any meeting I attend. (Now, there’s an idea….) It’s about the principle that civic space is secular, which means not having special rules for one set of beliefs.

Modern democracies are made up of millions of individuals who are entitled to believe what they like, as long as they obey the law and don’t discriminate against people they dislike. That’s been the central issue in a slew of legal cases brought by religious  organisations and individuals; in a not exactly shining example of Christian charity, the Roman Catholic Church has closed its adoption agencies in England rather than obey a law that says they can’t turn away prospective parents who happen to be gay. The head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Trevor Phillips, entered the debate last week, bluntly telling faith groups that provide public services that they can’t say they’re entitled to a different set of laws from everyone else.

Phillips compared Christians who don’t want to observe equality laws with Muslims who want to impose sharia, prompting a furious reaction. But the principle that secular law rumps religious belief is absolutely right; it’s a bulwark against religious intolerance, and sorely needed in a country where belief still enjoys far too many privileges. It’s bizarre that Christian prayers are still said at the start of Parliamentary business; there’s a daily stampede of peers arriving late in the House Lords, struggling to get a seat because they’ve waited until prayers are over. Are Christians really entitled to the best seats? And if Christianity is under attack, why are my taxes funding so many “faith” schools?

Whenever I hear the phrase “militant secularism”, I know that someone, somewhere, isn’t getting their own way. It means we’re moving towards a society which is less hierarchical, more open and tolerant, and where everyone has exactly the same rights. Now there’s something I’m militantly in favour of, like the very best chocolate and expensive shoes.


It’s not older women the BBC lacks. It’s women in general

Independent on Sunday, 12 February 2012

It’s official: the BBC has a problem with older women. The director-general, Mark Thompson, has admitted as much, acknowledging that the BBC’s treatment of Strictly judge Arlene Phillips and former Countryfile presenter Miriam O’Reilly – she won an age discrimination case against the corporation – has damaged its image. There are “manifestly too few older women broadcasting on the BBC”, Thompson admitted. The only bit of that sentence I take issue with is the word “older”.

The BBC has a problem with women, full stop. In recent weeks Radio 4′s Today programme has come in for a pasting because so few of its interviewees are female. Four of its five regular presenters are men, and so are the presenters of Any Questions, Start the Week and Question Time. After the 2010 general election, I remember asking whether women broadcasters had succumbed en masse to a virus which kept them off air while their male colleagues talked themselves into a state of exhaustion.

To be fair, it isn’t just the BBC where women don’t have the visibility you would expect in the modern world. When Lord Leveson held seminars for senior journalists before his inquiry into the media got under way, I was astonished by how few women were present. So was a shadow minister, who asked me where they all were. But the BBC is publicly funded and we have a right to expect “a higher standard of fairness and open-mindedness in its treatment both of its broadcasters and its audiences”. Those are Thompson’s words, not mine, and I’d say the BBC is failing on both counts.

I’ve been appearing on BBC TV and radio for years. I’ve got used to being the only  oman – it’s happened to me on Start the Week and Question Time – and I’m also used to being heavily outnumbered by men. It doesn’t bother me much, but I know other women feel unnerved by the prospect of walking into a male-dominated environment. Nor is there any doubt in my mind that this gender imbalance affects the tone of programmes, which can be sneering and hostile. On last week’s Moral Maze on Radio 4, Michael Portillo began by insulting me and then talked over me each time I started  answering a question. It reminded me of an edition of Newsnight – hilariously, I’d been invited on to talk about religious intolerance – when an imam tried to shout me down.

The gender breakdown on Wednesday evening’s Moral Maze (it was repeated last night and is on iPlayer) was seven men and two women. On that bizarre edition of Newsnight, the other four guests were men: the imam, a bishop, a Muslim convert and someone from Christian Voice. In the event, the man from Christian Voice got stuck on a train (I assumed it was God’s will) and the final line-up was three against one. As well as having the best arguments, I was definitely wearing the best shoes.

As I once explained to Robin Cook, who was one of the best speakers of his generation, I am unusual in having a formal training in rhetoric. I grew up on Cicero, which isn’t a background many women can draw on when they find themselves in a BBC studio. But I don’t think they should have to, any more than I believe that this combative style of broadcasting appeals to female audiences. I’m not sure men like it much either, judging by the messages I got after the Moral Maze. So perhaps the real problem with the BBC is this: too few women, too many alpha males.


Secular victory on council prayers

Prayers are not part of official council business, High Court rules

Friday 10 February 2012

Congratulations to the National Secular Society, which today won a lengthy battle to establish that prayers should not be part of a council’s official agenda. The NSS backed a councillor on Bideford Town Council in Devon, who did not want to leave the room after the full meeting started while prayers were said by a cleric.

No one is arguing that councillors who have religious beliefs cannot pray on their own or with other councillors before the meeting. Bideford Council was offered the option of removing prayers from the official agenda and giving councillors time to do that. It refused, and that is why the case went to the High Court.

This is not, as it is being portrayed in some quarters, an attack on Christians. It establishes an important principle, namely that religion is a private matter and has no place in the official business of a body elected to represent people of different faiths and none. I have argued for years that public space in this country should be secular, and that the secular principle protects believers, atheists and agnostics alike from oppressive behaviour.

Today’s judgement is welcome, and overdue. The process of turning this country into a modern, secular democracy goes on….

If you would like to read the judgement in full, you can find it here:

If you would like to know more about the work of the National Secular Society, which I support, you can use this link:



The opposition in Syria needs our help, and now

Independent on Sunday, 5 February 2012

Here is the brutal truth about Syria: no one knows what to do. Six months after Barack Obama said bluntly that Bashar al-Assad should go, and with the Arab League calling for him to resign, there is no sign that the country’s President is willing to listen. Two days ago, on the 30th anniversary of the massacre carried out by his father Hafez al-Assad in the city of Hama, the younger Assad ordered the Syrian army to bombard residential areas of the country’s third largest city, Homs. Shocking TV pictures showed buildings ablaze against the night sky, the wounded rushed to makeshift casualty  stations inside mosques.

Even these horrors were not enough to dissuade Russia and China yesterday from vetoing a draft UN Security Council resolution endorsing the Arab League’s plan for Assad to go. The Syrian President can also rely on the region’s chief mischief-maker, Iran, whose leaders’ terrible human rights record shows that they are unlikely to worry about his regime massacring its own people. There’s little point in appealing to Assad’s finer instincts: the dynasty is founded on torture and repression. What’s happening on the streets is simply an extension of what has gone in Syria’s political prisons for many years.

A decade ago, the Blair government feted Bashar al-Assad during a visit to London, hoping it could come to a modus vivendi with the Syrian tyrant as it was trying to do with Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi. Both regimes welcomed overtures from democratic nations, reading them (as we now know) as a carte blanche to continue doing whatever they liked to their own people. Gaddafi is dead, lynched by a militia group, but Assad is a harder nut to crack. Calls for international intervention remain muted because it would carry the risk of an escalation involving Iran and Hezbollah, further destabilising Lebanon and turning the crisis into a regional conflict.

With a stalemate developing and neither government forces nor the opposition able to achieve a decisive victory, the international community has regrettably few options. Yet the images coming out of Syria become more shocking by the day; unlike in 1982, when Hafez al-Assad bombed Hama and the details of the massacre took years to emerge, modern technology means that atrocities are reported as they happen. “My city is bleeding,” a young man tweeted from Homs in the early hours yesterday. “We’re being attacked since 8pm. 5 hours, 230 dead, 800 injured.” Last night there was confusion about the likely death toll.

Savage repression of the uprising is likely to drive Assad’s opponents into more desperate tactics, while increasing the likelihood of sectarian conflict between Syria’s majority Sunni population and its Alawite (Shia) ruling elite. Already, Alawite families are said to be leaving Damascus and returning to their home villages, while families and businesses in the capital are having to cope with power cuts and steep rises in fuel prices. Economic sanctions are biting but it’s clear that Assad is prepared to do anything to stay in power.

As the extent of Friday’s massacre in Homs becomes clear, the international community must work out how to support, train and organise the opposition. In Libya, the Nato bombardment of Gaddafi’s military installations was accompanied by a less-publicised project to instil discipline into the militias which had sprung up to oppose the regime. In Syria, a mixture of recklessly brave civilians and army defectors faces well-armed forces whose leaders remain loyal to the Assad family. It’s unlikely they can overthrow the dictator on their own, and the moral and practical case for giving them the
assistance they need is becoming unanswerable.

Update, Monday 6 Feb: Assad forces bombarding Homs again, see report here: