A child can’t ‘choose’ to be a prostitute

The Independent, Friday 28 September 2012

After a Rochdale gang was found guilty of running a child sexual exploitation ring, we know that perpetrators target vulnerable girls who won’t be believed.

The problem isn’t young girls running wild, drinking too much and getting pregnant. It
isn’t “wilful” 14-year-olds having relationships with older men. And it isn’t about race, although cultural misogyny and class come into it. The problem is child prostitution, and the failure of so many agencies to recognise and act on it.

In Rochdale, nine men aged between 24 and 59 were able to run a child sexual exploitation ring between 2008 and 2010. A review by Rochdale Borough Safeguarding Children Board has found that there were “many missed opportunities” to protect children, which is something of an understatement in a review which highlights staggering misjudgements. It hardly seems credible, yet case files show staff concluding that vulnerable children were “engaging in consensual sexual activity” and “making their own choices”.

Making their own choices? What planet do these people inhabit? A sentence referring to a 15-year-old victim known as “Suzie” simply beggars belief: “Social work practitioners and managers wholly overestimated the extent to which Suzie could legally or psychologically consent to the sexual violence being perpetrated against her”. Children cannot consent to sexual abuse or being made to work as prostitutes. How could anyone believe otherwise?

In fact, the same confusion is present in the wider debate about prostitution. People talk
glibly about “the oldest profession”, ignoring the grim reality. Of course it isn’t just another job, and the abuse of children in prostitution is mirrored by high levels of threats and violence towards women who sell sex.

Where children are concerned, the law is clear. It’s a criminal offence under the Sexual
Offences Act 2003 for an adult to pay for sexual services with someone under the age of 18, and payment is defined as discharge of an obligation or provision of services, not just as an exchange of money. If the child is under the age of 16, the adult can be sent to prison for 14 years; the maximum sentence if she’s under 13 is life imprisonment.

It’s well known that perpetrators target vulnerable girls because they won’t be believed. Suzie told different agencies on at least four occasions, and provided a detailed account to detectives, but the CPS decided she would make an “unreliable witness”. When the Rochdale gang was tried earlier this year, it emerged that girls as young as 13 had been raped, beaten and forced to have sex with strangers. The men were convicted of offences including rape. trafficking and conspiracy to engage in sexual activity with children.

Dozens of such cases have come to light, and similar failures have just been reported in Rotherham. At the heart of them, it now appears, is the ludicrous notion that children are making lifestyle “choices” to be sexually abused or work as prostitutes.


Mitchell should go. Then we can talk about policing

Independent on Sunday, 23 September 2012

It’s hard to imagine a more toxic political combination. Imagine a demoralised police force, smarting over a highly critical review of pay and conditions, battered by revelations at the Leveson Inquiry, and grieving over the murders of two officers in a horrific gun and grenade attack. Into this already volatile situation cycles a posh Tory MP, treating officers on duty in Downing Street as if they were the hired help.

The Conservative chief whip, Andrew Mitchell, admits he was rude but denies using the words ‘moron’ and ‘fucking plebs’. Two police officers stand by the allegations, which are all the more damaging because they fit into a pre-existing narrative of a Cabinet stuffed with millionaires who are increasing class divisions. On a visit to Manchester, where he had gone to pay his respects to the local force over the murders of PCs Fiona Bone and Nicola Hughes, the prime minister suffered the acute embarrassment of having to disown the conduct of a Cabinet colleague.

No one should under-estimate the scale of the rift that’s opened up between this government and the police. Rank-and-file officers are furious over the review carried out by Tom Winsor, who takes up a new role next month as the first Chief Inspector of Constabulary who has never worked as a police officer. Thirty thousand officers marched through London in protest at the proposals in Winsor’s report, which include a lower starting salary and a pay cut for officers who are on ‘restricted duties’ for more than a year.

In London, the Metropolitan Police has lived through two years of robust criticism, leading to the resignation of a Commissioner. Suddenly the political party seen as a traditional ally of the police has become an object of loathing. Photographs of Mitchell pushing his bike, wearing a suit and an unfortunate smirk, have become a focus of discontent. His position is all the more difficult because he is so unlike his father, Sir David Mitchell, an amiable wine merchant and former Conservative MP for Basingstoke, whose memoirs were entitled From House to House: The Endless Adventures of Politics & Wine.

Whether the younger Mitchell was known by the nickname ‘Thrasher’ when he was at Rugby is unclear, but at prep school he was known by the unflattering soubriquet ‘MitchellSnob’. A couple of years as Secretary of State for International Development has not endeared him to right-wing Tories, who loathe the government’s decision to protect the overseas aid budget from cuts in public spending. It’s not surprising that police unions have seized the opportunity to strike back, in a week when the dangers of the job have been brought home by the dreadful murders in Manchester.

Yet the fact remains that the police have been heavily criticised for both recent and historic failures, including their response to last year’s riots, their failure to investigate phone hacking and their handling of the Hillsborough disaster. Of course Mitchell should have resigned two days ago, but the snobbish outburst of a Tory Cabinet minister shouldn’t prevent a debate about policing in this country.


Why the Prince Charles letters ruling is so significant

The Guardian, Tuesday 18 September 2012

We ought to know what demands this meddling, unaccountable heir to the throne makes of our elected politicians

The Prince of Wales lobbies government ministers. He writes letters on all sorts of subjects, from architecture to fisheries policy, but we’ve never been allowed to know the details. That’s why today’s ruling that the government has to disclose the prince’s confidential letters to government ministers is so significant. It means we’re finally getting a little closer to finding out what kind of demands the wholly unaccountable heir to the throne makes on elected politicians.

But don’t hold your breath: the government has a month to decide whether to appeal against the ruling by a freedom of information tribunal. Ministers have been fighting the case for seven years, ever since the Guardian lodged a FoI request for letters written over a seven-month period in 2004 and 2005. Unless ministers concede defeat in the next four weeks, their next port of call is likely to be the high court.

Even if this batch of letters is published, ministers last year imposed a blanket ban on the prince’s correspondence being disclosed in the future, even if publication is in the public interest. You’d almost think they’ve got something to hide – something, for instance, like the prince trying to influence government policy. In fact, thanks to the information commissioner, we already know that he’s routinely consulted on legislation which might affect the Duchy of Cornwall.

Documents released earlier this year show that the then fisheries minister, Huw Irranca-Davies, wrote to the prince’s private secretary in 2008 enclosing two copies of a draft marine and coastal access bill. He highlighted clauses which would require the prince’s consent and got a response a couple of months later, informing him that “the Prince of Wales is content with the bill”. This archaic formula is troubling in a democracy – many of us might not be “content” with proposed legislation but we don’t have a veto over it – but it isn’t even as if the prince confines his correspondence with ministers to Duchy matters. In 2009, it was revealed that he had written to ministers in eight government departments over a three-year period.

The tribunal which ruled in favour of disclosure heard that the prince has lobbied on “holistic” medicine, genetically modified crops, cuts in the armed forces, architecture and agricultural policy. It doesn’t take much ingenuity to guess his views on any of these subjects, which are doubtless typical of a socially conservative landowner with a prejudice against science. In their 126-page ruling, the three judges conceded that Charles’s activities “are not neutral and in a number of respects have been controversial”.

But the point isn’t the prince’s political views, reactionary though they may be. It’s that he habitually abuses his position by lobbying ministers at all; I’ve heard from former ministers who were astonished by the speed with which their first missive from Charles arrived, opening with the phrase: “It really is appalling”. And Charles doesn’t write in the guise of an ordinary citizen, politely drawing attention to a matter of concern. He knows that his letters go “to the top of the pile” and are “treated with great reverence” in the words of Paul Richards, a Labour special adviser.

This is a delicate moment for the monarchy. The jubilee celebrations were intended to showcase the Prince of Wales, whose succession to the throne is likely to create all sorts of problems for the institution. Charles has waited decades to become King, he doesn’t have the prospect of a long reign and he is a meddler by nature. Buckingham Palace is trying to prepare the country for the reign of Charles III and the last thing it wants is the publication of a cache of embarrassing correspondence with ministers. In the modern world, political interference is more damning than any number of indiscreet love letters.

Angry young men need more jobs, less religion

Independent on Sunday, 16 September 2012

Anyone who sincerely wishes to bring stability and economic prosperity to the Middle East has to address the problem of angry young men. Decades of dictatorship, corruption and under-employment have created reservoirs of males who have a strong sense of grievance and nothing much to do. In some countries, where unpleasant regimes have recently been overthrown, they have guns. They’re a threat to civil society, they make the streets unsafe for women and they don’t need much  encouragement to turn into a baying mob.

It happened again last week when an obscure American film about the Prophet Mohammed led to days of violent protests. It wasn’t clear whether the movie was the cause of an attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, where the American ambassador to Libya and three of his staff were murdered, or the pretext for an assault orchestrated by extremists sympathetic to al-Qaida. But rioters in several countries refused to acknowledge any distinction between the US government, which had nothing to do with the film, and the weird bunch of Coptic and evangelical Christians who did. In northern Lebanon, protesters even appeared to blame a branch of KFC. (I don’t like fried chicken myself, but I’m not thinking of setting fire to a fast-food shop.)

Two days ago, the attacks spread beyond the Middle East and to European diplomatic missions, including the British and German embassies in Khartoum. In this volatile situation, it is vital for political leaders to do everything they can to calm the situation. But Egypt’s Freedom and Justice party, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, spectacularly failed to show a commitment to modern politics. Even though the murder of Chris Stevens in Libya had demonstrated there was a threat to life, the party called for protesters to come onto the streets after Friday prayers. It didn’t change its mind until the last minute while the Islamist President, Mohamed Morsi, complained about the silly little film before condemning the embassy attacks.

Turkey’s Islamist administration behaved more responsibly. But this is primarily a test of the new governments which have taken over from dictatorships following the Arab spring. And I’m afraid it demonstrates the reluctance of some Islamist parties to abandon the mob as an instrument of power. Gender is absolutely at the heart of this reluctance, which is accompanied by the continuing exclusion of women from power and public space. In Egypt, sexual harassment is rife on the streets; in Tunisia, the ruling Islamist party has written a clause into the draft constitution suggesting that women are ‘complementary’ to men.

It’s an attachment to a kind of machismo which is lethal and comical at the same time. In her new book Superman is an Arab, the Lebanese author Joumana Haddad compares the dominant mode of masculinity in the Middle East to a comic-book super-hero: ‘He may claim to be saving the world, but the world actually needs to be saved from him; and first and foremost, he needs to be saved from himself’. She’s right: young men in the Middle East have too much religion, but not enough jobs and self-esteem.

Branding breeds envy and anxiety among writers

Independent on Sunday, 9 August 2012

Emily Brontë wasn’t a brand, at least not in her own time. These days there is a Brontë brand, which decrees that there must be stage and movie versions of Wuthering Heights every few years. If she were alive today, Emily would be expected to turn up at signings and literary festivals where she would face all sorts of questions. Where did Heathcliff come from? Are you writing another novel? Even the most reclusive of authors cannot avoid the realisation that writers have become brands.

It’s one of the factors, I suspect, behind the revelation that a handful of authors have been resorting to “sock puppetry”: using made-up identities to post favourable comments about their work and to disparage rivals. A crime writer called R J Ellory seems to have been one of the worst offenders, using pseudonyms to gush about his novels on the Amazon website – he described one immodestly as a “modern masterpiece” – and to dismiss a competitor’s book as “same-old-same-old”. Ellory has apologised but another author, Stephen Leather, has admitted to creating conversations under different names on Facebook and Twitter to give the impression that his novels are a talking point.

There was widespread astonishment a couple of years ago when the historian Orlando Figes acknowledged he’d written anonymous reviews recommending his own books and criticising those of rivals on Amazon. “I am ashamed of my behaviour and don’t entirely understand why I acted as I did,” he said at the time. What’s all the more perplexing is that none of these men are struggling writers, trying to make an impression. I’m reminded of a remark by Gore Vidal, who once summed up the worst instincts of an author: “It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.”

Vidal always struck me as a singularly unpleasant man and I’m not sure how many writers would acknowledge (or indeed suffer from) this degree of insecurity and envy. But the modern practice of turning authors into brands, with all the hoop-la and inflated claims that accompany it, has pitted writers against each other in a way that verges on gladiatorial. I don’t know whether a best-selling American writer was embarrassed when her UK publisher described her as a “blockbuster crime brand”, but this kind of hard sell has nothing to do with good writing.

It’s a symptom of anxiety. A series of developments – e-books, piracy, and endless discounting – means that publishers no longer know how to sell books or make money. In desperation, they’ve responded by pushing authors as if they were baked beans.

There’s never been a time so hard as now for writers to make a living, and even best-selling authors worry about lukewarm customer reviews on Amazon. Success feels random, as much to do with good PR as anything else, and could evaporate overnight. That Brontë woman, whatever happened to her? Never wrote a sequel, did she? Pity, I gave her three stars on Amazon.

We need women ministers not political wives

To dispel worries about her influence on her husband, Michelle Obama described herself as ‘mom-in-chief’

The Independent, Thursday 6 September 2012

I like to think she stepped off the podium, nipped round the back and made a gagging motion with her fingers. The alternative – that Michelle Obama was unembarrassed about telling the Democratic National Convention how much more she loves her man since he became President – is simply too awful to contemplate. It’s almost as awful as David Cameron’s reshuffle, in which he sacked or demoted women and – this must be some kind of sick joke – appointed a Health Secretary who has voted for the time limit on legal abortions to be reduced from 24 to 12 weeks.

It’s not a good time to be a woman on either side of the Atlantic. In a country where “vagina” is currently a dirty word, Michelle Obama apparently felt the need to dispel any worries about her influence on her husband by describing herself as “mom-in-chief”. At least Mrs Obama talked about her husband’s commitment to equality, while at Westminster the Prime Minister was busy shifting the Women & Equalities brief from the Home Office to Culture in a clear sign of its declining status. It will now be done by Maria Miller in spare moments from her day job looking after culture, media and sport.

Women are worse off after the reshuffle, despite Cameron’s promise in 2008 that a third of all ministers would be female by the end of his first term in office. Just a thought, Prime Minister: how’s that project going, dear?

Someone might reasonably object that the women Cameron ejected from the Cabinet – Cheryl Gillan, Caroline Spelman and Baroness Warsi – aren’t very good. That’s true, but just look at the men he’s kept in or promoted. George Osborne, who’s destroyed all hope of an economic recovery. Andrew Lansley, who’s destroyed the National Health Service. Jeremy Hunt, who – where do I start? It turns out that the minister who became a laughing stock over the summer was actually doing such a fantastic job that he’s been promoted to Lansley’s old post. Who would have guessed?

Amid a slew of bad news for women, Hunt’s appointment is one of the worst. As recently as 2008, he voted to restrict legal abortion to 12 weeks, and there’s no indication that his views have changed since. Nor is he the only Cabinet minister with reactionary views on the subject. His new colleague, Maria Miller, supported an attempt  by the Tory backbencher Nadine Dorries to strip counselling from abortion providers and hand it to organisations which might have an anti-abortion stance. Do I think our vaginas are safe in their hands? Not for a moment, and we now have a Government that’s getting visibly more hostile to women as we head towards the next general election.

This is what happens when political parties fail to modernise. The days when Tony Blair put record numbers of women in Cabinet – five in 1997, eventually rising to eight – already seem a long way off. Even that wasn’t good enough, as Ed Miliband acknowledged when he gave 11 out of 27 shadow Cabinet jobs to women. But because they have so few female candidates in winnable seats, electing a Conservative Government (or one in which they’re part of a Coalition) is always going to mean a setback in terms of gender. Of 306 Tory MPs elected at the 2010 general election, only 48 were women – Labour had 81 – and the proportion of women ministers fell from 30 per cent to 17 per cent.

But systemic discrimination against women in the Conservative party has another, more insidious effect. As long as competition for seats is so fierce, it seems likely that women on the socially liberal wing of the party will continue to struggle to get selected. That means too few women on the Tory side in Parliament who will tell the Prime Minister frankly about the unequal impact of job cuts or argue for changes in policy to protect women. Female unemployment in the UK reached a 25-year high earlier this year, and that’s a direct consequence of decisions taken by Cameron’s male (and white, and public-school-educated) cronies.

In this atmosphere, the space for women to speak out boldly on a range of issues is becoming more restricted. It’s not that I expected Michelle Obama to start a chant of “vagina, vagina, vagina” in solidarity with the Democrat who was banned from the floor of the Michigan State House for saying the word aloud. But Mrs Obama’s convention speech was folksy and anecdotal, recalling the “guy who picked me up for our dates in a car that was so rusted out, I could actually see the pavement going by through a hole in the passenger-side door”. It’s what Sarah Brown did at Labour’s 2009 conference in an attempt to humanise a husband with communication problems, and it’s tragic to see centre-left parties resorting to such tactics.

I don’t want speeches from politicians’ wives. Nor am I calling for a day when a husband gets up to tell tear-jerking anecdotes about his brilliant wife, the prime minister. All I want – and is it really such a big thing to ask? – is more women becoming politicians in their own right.


Margaret Thatcher didn’t suit her Party – or other women

Independent on Sunday, 2 September 2012

On the day Margaret Thatcher was confirmed as leader of the Conservative Party, she wore a light-coloured suit with a huge silk bow at the neckline. The bow was one of her trademarks, sending a message about how she intended to tackle her new job. Thatcher might be accused of “wearing the trousers” – a common insult towards ambitious women then – in a party shocked to find itself with a female leader. But her clothes promised she wouldn’t do it at the expense of her femininity.

Tomorrow, seven suits worn by Thatcher in the 1970s are to be auctioned by Christie’s. The colours are surprising: pale green, peach and canary yellow, in contrast to the deep blues and maroons she favoured later. This is the uniform Thatcher adopted when she first came under public scrutiny, and it says a great deal about her. It’s a classic example of defensive dressing, emphasising that she was middle-class and middle-aged at a time when half the country was getting into jeans.

The Conservative Party didn’t know what to make of Thatcher. Neither did some reporters. From my teens I’ve looked after my skin,” she told a Sun journalist during the 1979 general election campaign. “I never used soap and water on it, although I come from a very soap-and-water-minded family.” I don’t suppose the outgoing prime minister, Jim Callaghan, had to field many questions about his cleansing routine.

When she became prime minister, Thatcher was one of only eight women on the Tory benches. Her choice of clothes aged her, but it also sat oddly with her steely ambition.
France’s President Mitterrand said as much, according to his aide Jacques Attali, who remembered his boss observing that Thatcher had “the eyes of Stalin and the voice of Marilyn Monroe”. It’s a disconcerting image, juxtaposing masculine power and feminine seductiveness. In a staunchly reactionary party which remained deeply suspicious of changing gender roles, it was also a huge gamble.

Thatcher didn’t promote Tory women or bother to make alliances with the handful of female MPs struggling to follow in her footsteps. At the same time, Tory men never quite trusted her. She ended up isolated from both sexes, only discovering how few friends she had when she was forced to fight for her political life in the autumn of 1990. The suit she wore for her resignation speech in Downing Street was a sombre, funereal version of the outfits she wore in her early days.

She went out in a sober plum skirt and jacket, a female version of a man’s suit. Every aspect of her voice and appearance jarred: she was brittle, constructed and artificial. After all those years, Margaret Thatcher still hadn’t resolved her confusion about gender and power. And I can’t think of a better symbol of it than those dreadful pussycat bows.