FGM: do the French know better?

It was good to see Frances Gibb writing in The Times this week – http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/law/article3983206.ece – about the woeful level of prosecutions for female genital mutilation “FGM” in the UK. Our record on dealing with this issue is shameful.

In France, where the number of prosecutions is much higher, they rely on reporting of the crime by health professionals whereas we have been relying on girls coming forward themselves to complain
Finally, it seems, the police are recognising that we need a more enlightened approach to this most traumatic assault on these girls’ safety, sexuality and health. Children are unlikely to come forward to give evidence against their parents (even though a parent often will have been present and complicit). That’s why the French reliance on reporting of the assault by health professionals has been key to their comparative success in this area.

I would go even further however: let’s have mandatory reporting by health professionals, teachers, or social services, who know an assault has taken or is likely to take place. That may even mean, if reporting did not increase after a trial period, that we should make it an offence to fail to do so.

We have come a long way since Germaine Greer opposed criminalising FGM as an “attack on cultural identity” but we need more courage in our convictions. We need to uphold British culture for everyone living here. FGM is an act of bloody assault which can deprive a girl of any future sexual pleasure. It is violent, invasive, permanent and a breach of her human rights.

As a Western democracy it is time we made sure we deliver protection to all of the children who live here, whatever their family of origin and its traditions.

Silver Lining Outlook

The behavior of the likes of Rennard and Hancock are symptoms of a broader and more intractable problem – the inherently unequal, male and sexist culture of politics. I believe so strongly that sexism is institutionalised in parliament and I do not make the accusation lightly (more on this in another piece soon).

We need to start thinking seriously about running parliament like serious businesses are run, with accountability, proper complaints procedures and managed performance. We need an independent all-party system to remove the invidious pressure on party leaders not to damage the public image of their party with voters. in other words, we need wholesale reform of our political system.

At the same time we need to effect cultural change – always hard – by questioning the kind of environment and attitudes we are asking women and other minorities to work with and implement the necessary training to drag parliament into the modern world. Too many people pay too great a price in terms of their family life to be MPs in a job from which vast numbers of voters feel alienated. I think those two things are related as is the offensively sexist culture.

The women who have spoken up about Rennard and Hancock have done us all a great service and there is the chance to bring about some good from their courage.

Don’t Forget Denis

A few years ago, while I was the parliamentary candidate for Westminster North my beloved and I were introduced to Baroness Thatcher at an event. “I’m a political husband” said Mr Cash, half in jest, “do you have any advice for me?” “Oh yes, “ she replied focusing her attention on him and stating very firmly, “you must carry on doing whatever it is you do.” And then, quite unprompted, she turned to me and added, “and your job is to look after him.” I was speechless. My spouse was beside himself with mirth for days.

Photo from www.Telegraph.co.uk
Photo from www.Telegraph.co.uk

A few months later, still in shock, I told the tale to Peter Lilley in an attempt to find out whether she practiced what she preached. It depends how you define “looking after” he laughed as he told me that she did indeed often fuss about Denis. Sometimes during late cabinet meetings she would suddenly check her watch and leave the room. Leaving the door ajar, they once heard her calling: “Deeenis.. Denis darling, do make sure you eat. There are fish fingers in the freezer.”

At the conservative party conference in 1975, the same domestic goddess had produced on stage a giant turquoise feather duster and proceeded to dust down the lectern. It was fantastically clever parodying of the contemporary female stereotype and underlined her confidence in herself as a woman as well as a politician. She found her own way to “look after” Denis while pursuing her political career, again simultaneously acknowledging and breaking with tradition.

Photo taken from www.telegraph.co.uk
Photo taken from www.telegraph.co.uk

30 years later the assumption remains that it is the man’s life/career/desires that will or should or must take precedence. The COO of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg’s book “Lean In” has sold over 2 million copies addressing these very issues. A lot of us are still trying to work it out. A new era of pragmatic feminist books, blogs and art – the Vagenda, the F-word, Shattered, Half a Wife, Emin, Girls – show how far we still have to go.

Yes, we now have all the laws we need to prosecute for equality in the workplace but we remain short of senior women in business, professions and parliament. I agree with Sandberg that until we achieve true equality in the home and men are supporting their partners in a truly equal way – by sharing the childcare, making their own career sacrifices, lowering their domestic expectations or taking on their half of the load – this will remain the case. How we achieve equal and mutual support and care at home is where feminism now needs to focus its energy now. It is timely to remember what a role model Denis Thatcher was for us all.

Of her many achievements perhaps Margaret Thatcher’s choice of partner was her best. It takes a man of real confidence, quiet strength and great values to be a true partner to a woman. That man is too cool for swagger, too assured in his own life to begrudge the limelight, too much in love to mind the flak. I’d interrupt my meeting to tell him where to find the fish fingers any day.

RIP Maggie

Downing Street Flowers

At a dinner in Hampshire in 2002, Margaret Thatcher was asked to name her greatest achievement. She smiled and said “New Labour and Tony Blair”.

Depending on your perspective this may be funny, comforting or sad but it would be hard to deny its truth. When Tony Blair persuaded his party to tear up Clause 4 and its commitment to socialism, history recorded that the nature of British political debate had changed. Thatcher had made socialism electorally unpalatable by branding it morally evil (an ardent belief on her part which she expressed openly and often). The electorate rewarded new labour and Tony Blair for their acceptance of this.

Sadly, the political debate has been stuck in the same centrist sort of place ever since. There is a received wisdom that we are all capitalists of some sort or other now and none of the main parties drives a socialist agenda any more. Yet hugely important issues remain unanswered. In Burkean terms and as the historian Niail Ferguson believes: the contract between the generations has been broken. We have spent our children’s money and wasted their futures. In too many ways the condition of Britain is as desperate today as it was in 1979.

How do we renew that contract? What does that look like? How do we fund it? What should be the issues that frame the political debate for the next decade in the very different world we live in now? How do we promote equality? Safeguard human rights? Restructure society to accommodate a much older population? Protect individuals against huge corporate interests?

Thatcher was of her time. Her character and the circumstances allowed the changes greatly needed for the UK. Her achievements were many (well analysed by David Allen Green here http://jackofkent.com/2013/04/margaret-thatcher-in-perspective ) but she was also a divisive and mostly unsympathetic human being. Reactions to her remain largely emotional rather than ideological (if you don’t agree consider why Tony Blair was so popular while adopting so much of her legacy) and have prevented political growth and maturity in the UK.

My hope is that when the deserved analysis and memorials are over, the Conservative party can finally enter a new era of political debate. We are so much more than this one leader, this one woman. The iconic status the party has attributed to her has held it back. With respect for her memory and achievements we need also to be honest about the failures and omissions. We have so much more to offer and now is our time.

Spread the Word

Taken from Guido Fawkes’ Blog

Blog off.


“A free and open world increasingly depends on a free and open internet. The internet empowers everyone — anyone can blog, create, learn, and share.

It is controlled by no one — no single organisation, individual, or government. It connects the world.

Today, more than two billion people are online — about a third of the planet.

Hacked Off supporter Max Mosley told parliament he wants the government “to cut off the wires” to websites he thinks should be censored. Millionaire celebrities like Hugh Grant want to regulate free speech on the internet.

They want laws to force dissident refusenik bloggers to risk paying exemplary fines if they refuse to submit to the regulator.

The Hacked Off-drafted press control Royal Charter aims to regulate any blog which carried news-related material aimed at readers in the United Kingdom.

Tell Max Mosley we will not be cut off, tell Hugh Grant we will not be regulated, we will not be fined.

Keep the world wide web open and free. Sign the petition here.”

Lucy Meadows

Imagine for one moment if you felt so uneasy with your gender and all that it defines about your identity that you were prepared to undergo the hormone treatment and intimate surgery that trans people face. Imagine the conviction you would have to feel about that decision to commit to such a physical and psychological journey. Imagine the unhappiness you would have to have borne to get to that point and the courage needed to reveal your decision. Most of all imagine how much you would need a few constants in your life, like, say, your work.

From the moment a baby is born, their gender determines a huge amount about how they are treated. Neuroscientistslike Cordelia Fine tell us there are few if any differences in the newborn brains of boys and girls and that it is we who affect their development by treating them differently. On the other side of the room, parents of both boys and girls will insist that they are chalk and cheese from the moment they take their first breath. If you consider that pink was for boys and blue for girls as recently as the early 1900’s you see how random stereotypes and norms can be. The factors which determine our gender identity, our attitudes to others and our sexual orientation are so complex the scientists aren’t even close to agreeing. So how crazy is it that some people feel able to ram their own ideas of “normal” down the rest of our throats?

Every day I watch my little daughter, Brontë, now two and a half, and see how innocent and kind human nature starts out and how little we know or care about the differences between people until adult biases and prejudicespoison our minds. When we first tuned into CBeebies Brontë and I fell in love with its presenter Cerrie Burnell. Cerrie was born with one arm about which my very vocal child never once remarked. I love the fact that Cerrie is on the BBC showing her tiny viewers that disability is a normal part of everyday life. When another mum told me about the furore her appointment to CBeebies had triggered among some viewers and in the press I was horrified. A google search threw up comments like: “Is it just me, or does anyone else think the new woman presenter on CBeebies may scare the kids because of her disability?”.

With no offence to Cerrie, she couldn’t scare a fly, but the bigotry about her one arm scared me that my child will witness this type of prejudice against “abnormality” as she goes out into the world. Prejudice like Lucy Meadows encountered.

Whatever the circumstances of her death, rumoured to be suicide, there is no question that she was treated cruelly by at least one parent and several newspapers. It is too late to stand up for her but it is not too late to stand up to those who made her life so much more painful by questioning her “normality”, her suitability for her chosen profession of teaching and, ultimately, her humanity. How vulnerable and lonely she must have felt transitioning under such a harsh glare of publicity. To be accused of disturbing the children in her classroom must have been devastating.

Lucy’s suicide will be harder for her pupils to understand than her transition. If, as it appears, this death is attributable to prejudice, it is a tragedy which demeans us all. Ultimately, it is not the Lucy’s of this world who frighten or hurt our children but those who portray them as abnormal.

I’ve been vilified by the Press. But a law to shackle it chills my blood.

The last time I spoke publicly about the press was in the early hours of 11th May 2010. I was the newly defeated conservative parliamentary candidate in the marginal seat of Westminster North and I was devastated to have lost the electoral battle into which I had poured my heart and soul for three and a half years. I was a conviction politician, the boring earnest type, but when I stood up that night it was not to emphasise my long campaign for British Free Speech or to call for free schools or any of the other issues I had promoted. Far from it. It was to let rip at the press for the many lies they had published about me, my family and my team during the last 6 months of my parliamentary campaign.

Yet at no time then or since have I ever advocated greater regulation of the press because, despite my outburst, I knew that, just as with the issues raised by the Leveson inquiry, the existing laws covered my every grievance. It was my choice not to sue but I could have done.

As a barrister I practised in the field of media law for 15 years. I have seen the arguments from both sides. I have watched newspapers with nothing to go on but the word of an aggrieved ex force Claimants through torturous libel claims when all they wanted was a 5 line apology but I have also watched them take courageous, principled high risk decisions to publish and change the course of history as this paper did when it accused the murderers of Stephen Laurence. Over time as I watched the new Labour government introduce more and more restrictions on what papers could publish: the identity of certain witnesses in trials, reports of religious speeches, my passionate belief in the principle of free speech grew and I devoted more and more time to campaigning on the issue.

So it was with horror that I observed the Leveson inquiry, alarmed that the inquiry sought to examine individual illegality and serious issues without reference to the relevant legal context. When the report was published it chilled my blood, confirming my worst fears that either the Judge failed to comprehend the significance of the legal principles before him (which is unlikely let’s face it) or he could not care less about the fundamental human right of free speech as embodied by a free press. The legacy of his illiberal and intolerant conclusions looks likely to be the statutory regulation of our historic free press. How proudly we will be able to sit alongside the Russians and Iranians.

I thought it might have been enough that we had already been humiliated internationally for our draconian libel laws but it appears that this particular Judge and his Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters do not seem to care. On separate occasions in the last 5 years we have been condemned for our restrictions on free speech by both the Americans, who have actually changed their own laws to prevent our libel judgments being enforced and the United Nations Human Rights Committee who have condemned our poor regard for free speech.

Some commentators are trying to suggest that if you are for the press you must be against the victims. So let’s be clear: I condemn unequivocally the awfulness of the press intrusions into the McCann and Dowler families and the casual abuses of the law which have taken place in the name of journalism and the pursuit of an extra headline. But hard cases make bad law. We need to talk a broader view and stop talking as if the only “victims” are those considered by Leveson. What about the thousands of other victims who have been helped by the press: of thalidomide drugs or of the Mid-Staffs NHS failures. We also need to remember the stories that are so important in holding our authorities to account but are often obtained through unlawfully obtained evidence the most important in recent history being MP’s expenses.

As sorry as we feel for the McCanns and the Dowlers and others how can destroying our free press make their situation any better? We can only feed the illiberal intolerant sickness at the heart of a parliament which can be bullied and threatened by the very lobby group, Hacked Off, which claims the moral high ground and simultaneously threatens to use the press to intimidate those who oppose their demands.

The reality is there was systemic extreme abuse of the law and regulations at one corporation and now we are going to punish and restrict our entire press, humiliating ourselves internationally with the most regulated system in the western world.

In the course of this debate, there have been some worrying ideas mooted about how we ought to be controlling what the press write about but the most sinister thought of all is that voiced by Leveson when he opened his inquiry. Paying lip service to the role of the press as our guardians he identified the question for the inquiry to be “who guards the guardians”. It was a rhetorical question, as we have now seen. There is only one option as we know from the autocratic regimes which monitor and regulate and censor their press: MPs. Oh well that’s ok then. Let’s hand our press over to the same parliament which has given us the labour legislation which mean we can’t express our faiths openly any more, which convict a frustrated traveller for joking that he will blow up an airport, losing his job as an accountant at taxpayers’ expense and which mean every word you publish online is subject to censorship. The left should be ashamed of itself with all its talk of human rights and freedom.

How did we get to the sorry pass where these same MPs are voting to give themselves the power to control our press. The whole thing is a disgraceful shambles. There is not a single act or misdemeanour of the press considered by Leveson which was not covered by the existing laws. That is why former newspaper editors are awaiting trial for criminal offences.  It is why the McCanns and Dowlers (and other victims of hacking) have received payouts. Let’s hope enough MPs have the integrity today to vote for the least regulation possible of the press.

There have always been rogue journalists just as there are rogues in your office, my legal profession, the House of Commons, you name it. They should be weeded out. Personally I’d prefer my press to remain as free as possible to report on them. The one thing that everyone including Leveson seems to have overlooked is that it was the press which broke the hacking story in the first place and which persisted with it to ensure the truth was told.