Women Will Remain Poorly Represented While We Fail to Accommodate The Realities of Women’s Lives By Kelly Grehan

“Women are not interested politics Kelly, that’s why I voted against it.”

So said a member of my CLP, when explaining why he voted against an AWS (All Women’s Shortlist) motion.  Of course, this comment was no surprise to me. Years as a political activist have shown me time and time again that, for many, the idea that women do not belong in politics persists.

The failure to bring about gender equality in any part of our political system is used by some as proof women are not interested or not ‘cut out’ for politics.
Of course, the truth is that, 101 years on from some women gaining the vote, the infrastructures of our political systems continue to conspire to exclude women.

When the first women entered Parliament, beginning with Nancy Astor in 1919, The Palace of Westminster was not designed for women at all.  The only women’s toilet was a quarter of a mile from the debating chamber and a small staff room in the basement, known as ‘the dungeon’ was designated The Lady’s Members Room.  

Women were expected to use this as an office, changing room and everything else. Meanwhile men had access to baths, dining rooms and a smoking room. Things have largely continued in the same vein- with women expected to adapt to the political system, as it is, with little thought given to how it could change to incorporate the realities of womens’ lives.  

This surely, is one main reason why women remain so underrepresented in all layers of government.

Take maternity: in 1976 Labour MP Helene Hayman became the first sitting MP to give birth. When her son was 10 days old she asked the Conservative Whip if she could be paired in order to miss a vote, and received a negative response.  Labour Whips refused her the time off so she came, baby in tow, forced to breastfeed the child in the only suitable place, which happened to be Shirley Williams office. A senior Conservative called the police when she left the baby with his nanny in the Ladies Members room while she voted.

And so things continued like this until last year, Liberal Democrat Jo Swinson was ‘furious’ after Tory Barndon Lewis, who she was paired with, voted in a Brexit vote while she was on maternity leave. This led to Labour MP Tulip Siddiq, delaying a planned caesarean, in case the same thing happened to her.  The outcry over this led to a temporary standing order being introduced to allow new parents to vote by proxy, with Tulip making history when Vicky Foxworthy voted in her behalf in January.

In 2010 a nursery was put in the Palace of Westminster.  Predictably, a complaint followed – about the loss of the bar, about the ‘waste of money’ and, of course, that this was a ‘perk for women.’

The numerous bars which adorn the building are apparently not a perk worthy of comment.  The fact is the changeable nature of Parliamentary debates, with urgent questions and the like, make planning childcare incredibly difficult, for staff as well as Members and a nursery helps.

Last week Parliament debated making the place more family friendly and accessible.

Ellie Reeves said:

“If Parliament is to be truly representative of these we seek to serve, we must continue to look at ways to break down barriers for those who might consider putting themselves forward for public office.”

Why have we not done this already?  

This week MP Stella Creasy announced her pregnancy.  At the same time she bravely told of her experiences of suffering miscarriages and having to continue with her work as an MP while bleeding and in pain. MPs from all parties have commented in support of her campaign for maternity leave for MPs.  

The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa) regulates the pay of MPs and authorised the budgets they claim for their work. It does not ‘recognise’ that MPs may go on maternity leave and so bears no responsibility to make provision for any paid cover for what they do outside the parliamentary chamber like campaigns and constituency casework.

In Denmark a member of the national parliament would have a substitute MP appointed.  Stella said she felt “forced to choose between being a mum and an MP.”

How many great people are we missing out on because Parliament does not account for the simple fact women have babies?

Why is all the responsibility on the mother, rather than on the structure which is oppressive in penalising parents who wish to serve?

Then there is council, where women and people under 60 continue to be poorly represented, which is a shame because councils should be representative of all groups within the community.

I know that when my children were under 5 I knew much more about local provisions for preschoolers, what was available and what was missing than I do now. That’s not to say I don’t try to be an effective voice for mums battling with services I no longer use, as I will for anyone,  but there is no doubt that councils benefit from people with a broad range of experiences – and at the moment that is rare.

I could not have dreamt of standing for council when my children (now ages 12 and 9) were younger as I could not possibly have been attending committees within days of their births, or managed bath time routines around late meetings, or canvassed while breastfeeding.  

Being a councillor and a mum is difficult: late meetings, casework, reports to read, but I love it. Representing my community is what I always wanted and I am sure there are many other women like me who dare not put themselves forward because the systems are not in place to support them.

It may surprise people to learn that there is no expectation of time off for anyone who has recently given birth, from council work. Only around 5% of councils have baby leave policies.  I’ve heard female councillors being told they must attend meetings within weeks of giving birth and feeling shamed for not ‘pulling their weight.’ This is not good for them, and frankly it is not good for our society.  

Until we act to change things we will continue to exclude people from standing and will not get the representation we need.

Petition for Maternity Leave for MPs:

https://www.change.org/p/marcial-boo-chief-executive-of-the-independent-parliamentary-standards-authority-give-mps-six-months-parental-leave?signed=true&fbclid=IwAR0IlkD_xjnQ4sRPZ-LoQJTWtQA-D6MQiMJ8uGkD–L_1Ow9bmbZNaFbUkI

Poverty: Home is Where the Start Is By Kelly Grehan

Home, the place you should feel the most comfortable and the most secure has become the very thing which enslaves many Brits to poverty.

Around 14 million people in the UK live in poverty in the UK (according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation) which is over one in five of the population.

At least 8 million of them live in families where at least one person is in work.  

How has it happened that a continued rise in employment is no longer reducing poverty?  

Whilst the reasons are multiple and doubtless include the rise in zeros hours contracts, state support for low-income families through benefits and tax credits falling in real terms and stagnant wages, housing must now be seen in terms of the devastating impact it has on so many. 

 The chances of owning your own home have halved in the last 20 years.  For those on middle income jobs, which once guaranteed a good standard of living the chances of owning a house is now diminished.  

Just 27% of 25 to 35 year olds in this bracket now on the property ladder, which is unsurprising when you consider that over the past 20 years, average house prices have grown about seven times faster than the average incomes of young adults (according to the IFS). Yet average house prices have increased by 152% whereas wages for 25- to 34-year-olds have only risen by 22% in real terms over the same period.

 

This means that many people who would have been home owners in the generation before theirs are now at the mercy of the private rented sector.

Their income should have meant they could comfortably afford the mortgage on an average property in an average area, but instead rising rents and the costs of deposits and upfront rents leave many struggling to manage.  

Unsurprisingly if those on good incomes struggle to afford the roof over their head then for those on low incomes the situation is even worse.  

47% of working-age adults on low incomes spend more than a third of their income (including Housing Benefit) on housing costs.

More than a third of working-age adults receiving Housing Benefit now have to top it up out of their other income to cover their rent.  

Let us not forget that many people on low incomes do important jobs like health care assistants and teaching assistants. 

Right to Buy has left pressure on the UK’s limited and often antiquated housing stock which simply means the social housing system can not operate in any way which works.  

Pressure on local authority housing lists means many desperate families  are stuck in temporary accommodation which radically undermines family life.  It also means many people with specific needs such as mobility and disability issues are in properties completely unsuitable for them which further impacts their health and ability to access services – for example there are people whose inability to get a wheelchair through their doorways effectively leaves them trapped in one room – isolated from any groups or activities outside the property.

As public housing stocks has fallen public housing has become almost synonymous for some with problem families; stigmatising children and adults alike and playing into a dangerous ‘us-and-them’ mentality.  

At the same time lack of access to the limited housing stock leads to raised tensions in communities as people instinctively resent those fortunate enough to be allocated a property.  

None of this is good for communities.

As demand outstrips supply; landlords are able to be less and less responsible, and as the costs of moving are always with the tenant, people are increasingly afraid to complain about the poor standards or their home.  

From the taxpayers point of view, this causes further costs as poor quality housing damages health, through for example more accidents and asthma being caused by exposure to damp environments. Furthermore; people with mental health conditions are one and a half times more likely to live in rented housing than the general population.

 Children who have lived in temporary accommodation for over a year are three times as likely to have a mental health condition than other children, including depression and anxiety.  

This might be because they lack space to do homework or have friends over.

10% of mothers who lived in acutely bad housing were clinically depressed, further impacting on family life. 

Rough sleeping had almost been eradicated by the Labour government of 1997-2010. However since the election of 2010 there has been a catastrophic rise of 169% in the number of rough sleepers with an estimated 4,751 people sleeping outside overnight in 2017.

 

While rough sleepers are the ultimate victims of the UKs crazy housing systems, other types of homelessness have also risen: homelessness among people with mental and physical health problems has increased by around 75% since the Conservatives came to power in 2010, and there has been a similar rise in the number of families with dependent children who are classed as homeless.  

Every person in this situation is suffering unimaginable amounts of stress.

Even the houses we are buying are not seeing occupants have a better standard of living than their previous generations.

New homes are now 20% smaller than those built in the 1970s, whilst this means raised bigger profits for developers, as kitchens and living rooms get smaller family life is inevitably negatively impacted.

 In short every single part of our housing system is dysfunctional and a failure to fix it means more and more people are dragged into a poorer standard of living which, in short means there is more misery and more suffering.

 How long are we going to let this madness continue?  

 

Crime and Inequality By Kelly Grehan

The news that Sadiq Khan has launched a Violence Reduction Unit in London, based on a Glasgow model; which treats violent crime as a public health matter, is to be welcomed.

The growth in violence has plagued Khan’s Mayorship, with many blaming him for the rise in knife crime in London.

There have been 100 homicides in the capital so far this year. A third of the victims were aged 16 to 24, and three in five of the killings were stabbings.

Cuts to the Police Force have undoubtedly resulted in a rise in crime seems; there is another issue which we need to address if we are to have any hope of stopping violence:

Inequality.

Places with the most inequality are consistently the most violent – think of Nigeria, America and South Africa.  And to be clear, it is not the poorer societies which face the most violence, far from it.  It is those in which inequality is sewn into the very fabric of life.

Income inequality is significantly greater in London than elsewhere in England.

In the three years to 2015/2016, the income of someone just inside the top 10% was eight times higher than someone just inside the bottom 10% of earners earned more than the bottom 50%.

London, is a city which is now defined by inequality.  

50% of London’s wealth is owned by the richest 10% of its households. The bottom 50% own just over 5%. Over the last two years  the least wealthy 10% of people have lost  32% of their wealth compared to a 2% drop across Great Britain. Meanwhile, the wealth of the top 10% in London has increased by 25%.

London is such an overcrowded place that the disparity between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ is constantly rubbed in the faces of those struggling to make ends meet.

Experiences of being viewed as inferior often manifests itself in aggressive behavior.

Furthermore lack of opportunity leave feelings of powerless and a realisation that hard work will not lead to success.

Fear and hopelessness are major drivers of violence.   Inequality encourages social competition which can be settled with violence.

Now, those in favour of the status quo will talk about the power of the market and will find isolated incidences of someone poor who became a millionaire and will claim any efforts to curtail the rise in inequality are from people jealous of anyone who does well, or will ruin the economy.

But we are now all seeing the impact that inequality has on society as violence grows. Every day there is a news story about another stabbing or murder in London. And if we are to change this we need a clear and honest idea on the causes of it. We simply cannot afford to ignore it anymore.