Category: Socioeconomic equality

Why does no-one want to be an MP?

Emma Spriggs:  Leeds Central Liberal Democrat candidate (and superwoman)

Emma Spriggs: Leeds Central Liberal Democrat candidate (and superwoman)

I recently published an article asking if Leeds Central Liberal Democrat candidate, Emma Spriggs, was some kind of superwoman. I asked this question because I’d spotted that Emma was simultaneously running for MP in Leeds Central and running to be a local councillor 300 miles away in Bucklebury, Reading. I eventually caught up with Emma to discuss her dual campaigning. What she told me came as a surprise and highlighted the difficulties ‘ordinary’ people have in making it into politics.

Emma will not be visiting Leeds to campaign for this general election despite being the candidate for the party who came second here in the 2010 General Election. Instead she is putting all her resources into standing against the Conservative seat-holders in Reading where she lives.

Emma has no connection to Leeds and acknowledges she is not the ideal candidate to stand in Leeds Central, but she is doing so because the Liberal Democrat party asked her to at short notice and she wanted to make sure that everyone in the area had the chance to vote Liberal Democrat (so for local Lib Dem voters – and there were nearly 8,000 in 2010 – Emma probably is a superwoman.)

Emma says the Lib Dems are not a wealthy party and so have to carefully identify their priorities. Even though they came second with 23% of the vote in Leeds Central in the 2010 General Election it is still a Labour safe seat and, under First Past The Post, they have less to gain from prioritising this seat. Emma was keen to stress that this was not ideal – her party would like to contest every seat with candidates who are able to run a strong campaign locally. Emma says other parties make these kinds of decisions too, but because of their resources it isn’t as noticeable when Labour or the Conservatives do it.

The Yorkshire & Humber Liberal Democrats were the ones who asked Emma to stand here. They won’t talk to me about the reasons, but one thing seems certain – there are not enough people in the area willing and able to go through the process of becoming an approved candidate and then taking on an election campaign.

I asked Emma why there weren’t enough people wanting to become MPs. She thinks it is because the process to become an approved candidate is long and arduous, and then when you are approved it takes many months of canvassing, night after night, to fight an election. This puts a lot of people off, but many people with a family and a full time job simply cannot do it. It can be different for Labour or Conservative Party candidates because they have safe-seats. If you’re high up in those parties you can be put into one of those seats and you’re practically guaranteed to win (Boris Johnson is a current example of a Conservative MP dropped into a safe-seat) – the amount of canvassing you’ll have to do is much lower compared to the minority party candidates who have to put their lives on hold to campaign.

Emma wants to see the processes change to help more people who have had lives outside politics get into politics. She thinks she is the sort of person that the public would like to see as an MP. She’s not a career politician, instead she has run her own business for 20 years and has brought up two children. She has worked to support her community and says she knows what can make a difference to people’s lives.

The First Past The Post system is another big factor according to Emma (I discussed the current voting system with all the Leeds Central candidates in this article). It stops the smaller parties developing and building up their base, and it discourages people from a safe-seat area from campaigning because they know the votes they’ll win will count for little.

The Conservative candidate for Leeds Central, Nicola Wilson (also a business woman with two children) told me she had also found it a difficult journey into politics. She wants to see more ‘ordinary’ people like herself becoming MPs but thinks people are put off by the stigma associated with being a ‘politician’, the difficulties of combining campaigning with family and work, and the situation where you cannot win if you run against a safe-seat candidate.

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The policing of prostitution in West Yorkshire – the view from the street (Part One: the Joanna Project)

Photo of the Joanna Project team meeting MP Hilary Benn.

The Joanna Project team. (Photo from MP Hilary Benn’s website)

The police’s approach to tackling prostitution has come under the national media spotlight of late as part of a wider debate about how society views sex work. In previous articles I looked at how West Yorkshire Police, along with most other forces, has chosen not to adopt elements of the ‘Merseyside Model’ which has been instrumental in helping Merseyside Police achieve a 67% conviction rate for crimes of rape against sex workers compared to a national average conviction rate for rape of just 6.5% (2010 data).

The policies and processes that individual police forces adopt, and the standards and behaviours that police leaders set for their officers are of course critical, but to understand the full picture it’s essential to look at what actually happens on the street on a day-to-day basis. Do the interactions between individual police officers and prostitutes working on the streets of West Yorkshire tend to make the working women safer, or do they put them in more danger? Do the interactions support an exit from the cycle of addiction and prostitution which is prevalent among women working on the streets?

To try and answer these questions, I requested interviews with all the support agencies which West Yorkshire Police told me they liaise with. The first of what I hope will be a short series of interviews is presented below. This interview is with Jackie Hird from the Leeds-based Joanna Project.

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What is your relationship with West Yorkshire Police like?

We’ve established a good working relationship with WYP. We certainly don’t live in their pocket – but they know who we are, and we know who they are. We’ve built a closer relationship in recent times as Inspector Christopher Bowen (Holbeck Neighbourhood Operations Inspector) has taken over. He’s been very proactive in contacting us. We have a planning application in at the moment for a support centre in Holbeck and the police have been very supportive of that.

I’ve been here for 4 years and I’ve seen a definite change in attitude, at least in the senior officers. A couple of years ago I attended a meeting hosted by the police and they were making statements there about needing to see the women as victims and looking at the bigger picture, recognising they have multiple needs and that policing alone will not solve things. This meeting was the beginning of the formation of the strategy called Responding to Prostitution in Leeds: A Partnership Strategy. I know there are working women who will tell stories about encountering officers who are less than helpful, but it can take time for attitudes to filter down. I don’t think you’ll get every officer signing up to that.

We do an evening outreach and sometimes officers will come across who don’t recognise us – by and large, once they find out who we are and what we’re doing, they’re respectful of our activities.

What interactions do you have with the police?

We are part of the Ugly Mugs scheme so we would use that if there are any ‘dodgy punter’ type allegations. The police will contact us too. For example, there was recently an incident of rape, so the police alerted us to that and said if anyone had any information to please let them know. They said to put the word out that they were taking the incident seriously. They do make efforts. There’s been an issue ongoing for a while where a particular person has been a cause for concern. Different agencies, including the police, have met to try and resolve the situation. We wouldn’t give information to the police about a client unless it was for their safety, or if someone was missing, or if they’d given their permission to be discussed at a multi-agency meeting to try and help them in some way, for example with exit strategies. We don’t get involved in the police’s duty to uphold the law.

How good are WYP at encouraging your clients to report crimes and to see them through to convictions?

It’s quite difficult to get our clients to report crime and to take it the distance through to conviction. They see violence as an occupational hazard. The women we work with are street sex workers, which is quite different to many indoor sex workers. All the women we support have huge addiction issues. For them, it’s a cycle of working, using, working, using. They’re out there driven by their habit. So things like ‘reporting crime’ can be very low on their priority list. They might think ‘it’s awful what’s happened to me but I still need to work and score.’ I know sometimes there have been efforts made by the police to get women to follow through on statements, but it’s not always where the women are at. Our experience is more that the problem is when the case gets to court. Juries and magistrates etc. don’t see the women as they should – as credible witnesses. They think ‘well, what were you doing out there anyway’.

The women themselves may not see a more enlightened approach from the police. They might not see the bigger picture – they sometimes just see themselves as ‘being moved on’, ‘being lifted’, ‘being ASBO’d’. They don’t trust the police.

Have you heard of West Yorkshire Police’s “Operation Topaz”?

No, I’ve not heard of that.

What about your work to change the community’s view of prostitution – is that done in conjunction with the police?

It’s a hot topic at the moment because of this planning application.

The reason we didn’t go public about our proposal and have lots of meetings is because we’re aware lots of residents don’t want their area (Holbeck) trumpeted as a red light area and we were trying to respect that. Ironically, the challenge from some (but definitely not all) residents has thrust this in to the spotlight.

Holbeck is trying to rehabilitate its image. But sadly the reality is that it is where women are working. So being respectful of residents we didn’t make a big fuss about our building. And we know it will have absolutely no impact on the residents. It’s a very small building near an industrial estate – it’s not in the residential area. It’s not going to look any different apart from some clean curtains in the building. All anyone might possibly see is an occasional woman knocking on the door and being let in. We need the women to know where we are but we won’t be putting a big sign on the front of the building saying “working girls here” or anything like that! All people will see is the building that is there now. To suggest it will attract women in to the area is a fundamental misunderstanding of what drives women to work as street prostitutes. They don’t come here because we give them a bun and a cup of tea. We’ve actually been working in Holbeck for the last 10 years. This new proposal is just a small extension to our existing work. But somehow it’s become very visible and contentious which is frustrating.

I have invited different representatives of residents groups to meet with me and we have had some productive meetings. But I think when you’re involved in an issue like prostitution you become a kind of lightning conductor for all the anger about that issue, but I cannot solve it myself. I did not cause it. I’m just suggesting we could be a small part of a solution.

The Joanna Project and the police recognise each other’s aims – theirs is to uphold the law, ours is to help women exit prostitution – we both have an important part to play. One of the points I try to make to residents is that, because the women’s addictions are so strong, the police are not a deterrent from what they do. The addiction that drives them is much stronger than the fear of being caught by the police. The need to feed the addiction, which isn’t about pleasure but about stopping the pain, is the driver – that’s their rationale. Fear of getting an ASBO is nothing in comparison. But that can be hard for members of the public to understand.

Where are you in the application process for your outreach centre?

The planning officers have approved our proposal, but a councillor has requested that it go to a panel – this was originally going to be on the 6th March but has been deferred to 3rd April. So we wait for the councillors to decide at the planning meeting. All the objections and support for the scheme are public access.

Have you heard of the ‘Merseyside Model’ in the Association of Chief Police Officers guidance which has led to a big increase in conviction rates for crimes against sex workers?

Not heard of the ACPO guidance specifically but I would think that if Independent Sexual Violence Advisors are seen as being anything to do with the police then our clients won’t trust them. In terms of encouraging people to report crime and assist with that, that is something the voluntary sector would do in Leeds. We get the message across that just because you’re a working woman does not mean you should accept violence. We give that message strongly – it is not “OK”.

I don’t know enough about the hate crimes approach but it sounds like a very sensible idea. I think it’s the sort of thing which needs a council and political will to back it, not just the police will. I don’t know whether the political will is there or not.

Are more fundamental changes in law, politics or society needed to help tackle this issue?

I think society has this idea that these women just wake up one day and think “I’ll go and sell my body”. There isn’t the acknowledgement that it was a long and difficult journey to where these women are today. It very commonly started in the care system, in parental abuse, in neglect. A huge number of women will have been sexually abused as children. Society let these women down way back in their journey. Maybe their own parents were addicts. How do we get society to take responsibility for these people who have been damaged and let down in the past? Very commonly we hear of heroin addictions starting in the early teens. But when we see them later on in street prostitution people say “It’s all their fault” and that they “need to shape up”. Many of them won’t have completed secondary school – they often don’t have basic life skills. It’s OK helping women exit prostitution, but it’s naive to then expect them to be able to get a house and manage money, rent, bills etc when they’ve never done that before. Some have no supportive relationships because the only people they know are sex workers and other addicts. The journey to begin to build a positive life from that starting point is incredibly hard. There is very little acknowledgement of those issues. It’s a much bigger picture than just a woman saying “I’m going to take crack and heroin”.

Have Hilary Benn MP and local councillors come out in support of your outreach project?

Hilary Benn came to visit us a little while ago to learn of our plans. He certainly seemed supportive of them.

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Footnote:

West Yorkshire Police’s Operation Topaz and the Association of Chief Police Officers 2011 Guidance for Policing Prostitution and Sexual Exploitation are discussed in this article.

National ATOS Protest 19-2-14: Interview with Tom Smith, the man who made it happen.

Tom Smith and Joe Salmon outside the Leeds Assessment Centre as part of the at the National ATOS Protest

Tom Smith (left) and Joe Salmon (right) outside the Leeds Assessment Centre as part of the National ATOS Protest

7:40am, outside Leeds Medical Assessment Centre. Transcript:

TS: I decided just before Christmas that I wanted to set up a demonstration against ATOS in Leeds so I put the idea out there on Facebook. A colleague of mine, Paul Kelly said, “Look, we’ve got something like 30,000 people saying they want to get involved, we should think about making it national”. So after some deliberation we decided to go for all 140 ATOS centres in the UK. Some of them won’t have anyone protesting there today, but ATOS have had to bring in lots of extra security to every single centre today – so it’s a hindrance to them – but my main reason is not to disrupt ATOS but to try and start a ripple effect in the public’s understanding of what is happening. After seeing Channel 4’s Dispatches programme ‘Britain On The Sick’, I said to my wife, “I’m going to do something about this. I don’t know what – but I’m going to do something”. So I started to investigate what was happening. As I dug deeper I was brought to tears by what I was finding out.

JC: What was your own experience of the ATOS process?

TS: I went through my ATOS process in January here at the Leeds Assessment Centre we’re stood outside now. I’m one of the lucky ones who didn’t lose their claim, but even so, I was called in to reception and spoken to by the receptionist like I was something you wouldn’t scrape off your shoe. So I thought, “Alright, here we go…”. I got called in to the assessment room, and it was a nurse who it turned out had only been in the country a month. I asked her in what way was she qualified to assess me – a person with complicated syndromes. Her response: “because I’ve done the ATOS training course” – the training course only lasts a couple of weeks. I have COPD, chronic nerve damage to the left leg, growths on my hips, a prolapsed spine, I have PTSD, and I have a personality disorder. How could a nurse make an assessment of me? As it turned out, she didn’t even ask me any questions. She wrote down what was on my prescription and said to go. It was the most humiliating experience I’ve ever had in my life. You’re absolutely terrified.

ATOS pay their staff £50 for every client they get through within the half hour. They get paid a further £50 if they manage to get that person off disability benefits. Now, if I told you I’d pay you extra money to do something, it’s fairly obvious what you’d do. And they’re only allowed to pass 12.3% of the people that they see. This is what the doctor who went to the training centre in the Channel 4 Dispatches programme was actually told. It beggars belief – at the end of the day these are mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, children, uncles, aunties – and they’ve been demonised by this Tory government and by the Tory press so people have started to see them as not human and therefore they become desensitised. This country has always supported its weak and vulnerable. But then Iain Duncan Smith comes in and, basically, he is doing a cull. It’s estimated that by the next general election, 60,000 people will have died as a result of this policy – there are some very uncomfortable historical equivalents to that kind of thing happening. I don’t see how you can tell people who are dying from cancer that it is their own fault.

JC: What do you think about the post on the ATOS website about the protests today where they’re saying they’re just following the government’s orders ? – quote: “We have been conducting assessments for benefits for over 15 years based on the policies and processes set by successive governments.”

TS: I think if you read between the lines that they’re accepting the guilt for what they have done. They’ve said in that blog that the protesters should not focus on the staff, because the staff do not make the policy. It’s ATOS that makes the policy and it’s ATOS that’s at fault.

The tears would come flooding for anyone who listens to the stories. There was a guy in Leeds who was an activist on these issues. He hung himself at the end of last year. And then the case of the man in Bradford who was appealing against ATOS’s decision. He didn’t have any money for 10 months. The day he finally got his money the poor guy died in his flat in Bradford. He had no heating. He hadn’t eaten properly for months. He was literally skin and bone – like someone from Belsen. How we, the general public, can sit back and let this happen I really don’t know.

At the end of the day, yes, I’ve sparked this demo and planted the seed, but 4,500 people are involved with just the setting up. It’s come from the ground up.

If anyone ever tells you that one person can’t make a change then have a look at this demo. I was the one person who planted that little seed, and the response has been overwhelming. It humbles you. Within about 3 hours of putting the idea online I had about 4,000 emails asking how can I get involved.

Yesterday, me and Joe Salmon were doing an interview for Radio Aire. About 20 minutes after, our phones were ringing and ringing with BBC Radio up and down the country wanting to cover the protests. I stood there and looked at Joe and burst into tears. I thought, what have we done?! They reckon on expecting 60 here today in Leeds, but I reckon they’re in for a shock – there’s going to be a hell of a lot more. You’ve got individuals who’ve said they’re coming, then the NUS, Unite the Union, Unison, NHS groups, Labour and Green party councillors too. In London we’ve got people like Hilary Benn, Dennis Skinner and John McDonald because today is Prime Minister’s Questions. My local MP, Phil Davies, who was very critical of the disabled a few weeks ago saying we’re all scroungers and should get up and work – he has emailed me to say he now supports the campaign.

The government have lost touch with reality – they don’t know what’s going on. Anyone who’s got a family member or a friend affected by this policy will have seen how the policy is taking away people’s dignity. People are literally having to go and beg. I know a demonstrator down on the south coast having to get by on £7 a week. You can’t do that – it’s physically impossible. But Iain Duncan Smith and the DWP think that is a satisfactory income.

JC: What will solve this? Will it be the next general election now that Labour have come out strongly against the policy? Or might it change before then?

TS: Labour brought ATOS in in the first place, but not to do what the Tories have got them doing. ATOS, who are a French IT company, have lost the contract – that was announced yesterday. But another French IT company are coming in to take over the contract – it doesn’t make sense! As for the next election, I think Labour will get in. The Tories have pushed things so far that even the middle classes are starting to realise that things have gone too far. With any movement, you can have the students involved, the working class, but it’s only when the middle classes get involved that something will really happen. I would love to think that this demonstration is the thing that starts a ripple effect. There are people from all different walks of life getting involved in it – if they haven’t already been affected then they’re starting to realise, “it could be me next”. Pastor Martin Niemöller got it right when he said, “…Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they got rid of the sick, the so-called incurables, and I did not speak out because I was not sick. Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”

It’s atrocious that anyone should defend a French IT company – one who paid no tax on their £120 billion income last year – making these decisions on people’s lives. It should be people’s own GPs who know them and understand properly what they can and cannot do. It’s a sad state of affairs, but hopefully today will raise the awareness. People are going to stand up and say, “We’re not going to take this anymore – we’re not going to stand by while this is happening to the sick and vulnerable in my country”. The disability payments only equate to 1.8% of the total amount the government pays out on benefits. The amount of actual cheating to get benefits payments is like 0.02% of the total. It’s nothing compared to tax evasion, such as by ATOS. The 8% pay raise the MPs just gave themselves would pay for all Disability Living Allowance for 6 months.

We’re hoping to have BBC Look North, ITV, Sky, Russia Today and others covering the demonstrations today. It’s really interesting to think about why the BBC are covering this. They haven’t covered any demonstrations in the last couple of years. November the 5th – 4,000 people out – no coverage. Thousands out in Manchester for the NHS rallies – no coverage. But they want to get really involved in this. Why? There’s lots of interesting things going on. ATOS putting out their blog message – that’s not normal behaviour for a multi-million pound corporation. Police forces up and down the country are actually saying they support us – they are also seeing ATOS starting to take over parts of their operation so they see the dangers too.

Enough is enough – no more. We’re not going to sit back any longer.

Eric Pickles vs. Leeds City Council vs. My community

Eric Pickle vs. Leeds City Council vs. My communityThere is some truth in Eric Pickles argument that local councils can work better to deliver services without raising the council tax. But the reality is that communities are now left to organise and fight the budget cutting plans of councils who are ill-equipped to think and work in radically different ways to maintain services in non-conventional ways. We’ve seen this with the library and sports centre closures where communities have come together to try and run the services themselves. The communities have not done this in partnership with councils, but in reaction to clumsy traditional cuts programmes. The process goes something like: 1) identify service that could be cut, 2) “consult” with the local communities (a legal requirement), 3) tailor cuts to pay heed to consultation (“we listened”), 4) implement cuts. Councils would do well to read the new Surviving Austerity report from the New Economics Foundation. Eric Pickles would do well to take more responsibility for helping councils manage the impact of his cuts on local communities. Continue reading

DWP is using your taxes to employ staff on zero-hours contracts

Zero-hours contractsIn this earlier post, a friend and I looked into whether the Living Wage (which David Cameron referred to 3 years ago as “the idea whose time has come” and is supported by all the main political parties) was being paid to all workers at DWP’s head office in Leeds. The answer was “no”, with 155 staff being paid below the national Living Wage of £7.45. DWP have subsequently confirmed they take no interest in what the companies they contract pay their staff despite Government Minister Brandon Lewis telling Hilary Benn that “The Government supports the living wage and encourages business to take it up where possible and affordable.” If you’re wondering whether it might not be “possible and affordable” in these cases then remember that a) we’re talking about some of the largest multinational companies in the world with revenues in the £billions, and b) it is cheaper overall to pay staff the Living Wage and make them economically active, as opposed to paying them less than the Living Wage and forcing them to claim top-up benefits. Continue reading

Stickering bordering on the malicious

Camila Batmanghelidjh’s Mind the child: the Victoria line Nick Davies’ Dark Heart: The shocking truth about hidden Britain I was much impressed by Camila Batmanghelidjh’s Mind the child: the Victoria line and Nick Davies’ Dark Heart: The shocking truth about hidden Britain and thought these were important books for Leeds public library to have in stock. The library kindly ordered in a copy of Mind the child and I donated a copy of each book to the stock, so there are now two copies of each in the system.

I like to think that people will see the books on the shelf, have a flick through and think, “This looks like an interesting and important book”. They’ll borrow the book, read it, absorb the information and let it shape their lives. They’ll treat the book well and return it promptly so other people can read it.

Other things that might happen to the books:

  • They might be borrowed by someone with kids who reads at a rate of about a chapter a fortnight and therefore keeps renewing the books preventing others from reading them (ahem…)
  • They could be stolen from the library, perhaps with the cover being used as roach material and the pages being used as toilet roll.
  • They could be borrowed by the kind of people who make books mouldy or whose dog takes a chunk out of the book. (These are real-world library book problems. See the Awful Library Books website for examples.)
  • The library may make the books unattractive to the potential borrower (or attractive for the wrong reasons) by misplacement of library stickers (see Ass in the Cathedral below). Although I think this is unlikely due to the way Leeds Libraries sticker their books. Dark Heart could be turned into Dark Fart, but that would require stickering bordering on the malicious. Besides, Leeds Libraries staff would never do a thing like that.

So it’s a speculative effort – but an effort none the less. I’m going to leave some copies around the building I work in too.

Ass in the Cathedral ——————————–

An interview with Camila Batmanghelidjh about her work and book here. A review of Dark Heart here.

Making the news: The 10 factors that explain the state of the mainstream media.

The ingredients of news: 70% Wire copy, 54% Public Relation material, 12% journalismIn previous posts I’ve been looking at why the mainstream media in the UK routinely omit stories on certain subjects while so often failing to report accurately, in a balanced way, on the stories which do make it to the public. Nick Davies book, Flat Earth News, provides perhaps the final pieces in the jigsaw to explain why this is.

To the factors I’ve discussed in previous posts, Nick Davies’ book adds commercialisation and ignorance. A full list of the ten factors is presented below, but first a look at what Nick Davies says in Flat Earth News. Continue reading