Helen Barnard: Poverty is spiralling out of control in this country. It’s time for the Government to get a grip.

19 Jan

Helen Barnard is Associate Director at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Research and Policy Director at Pro Bono Economics.

With the current febrile political atmosphere, it’s easy to lose sight of the serious challenges facing the country. But the Government and the Conservative Party need to recover their focus and get to grips with these if they want to not only secure another election win, but fulfil their commitments to the country.

This week saw the publication of a new state of the nation report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. It lays bare a challenge that should be at the heart of this reset: the increasing number of children growing up in deep poverty.

Since 2012/13, poverty has been rising among both children and pensioners. Almost third of children how live in poverty, up by four percentage points. This is bad enough, but even more worrying is the fact that a rising proportion are living in deep poverty, with incomes so low as to be completely inadequate to cover the basics. 1.8 million children are in families trapped in this position – an increase of half a million between 2011-12 and 2019-20.

And for many, poverty is not a fleeting experience – the hardship and fear it causes can last for years. The report highlights large numbers of children in persistent poverty in the years running up to the pandemic. Around one in five children have lived on a low income for at least three of the four years between 2016 and 2019. For young children, living in a family that is going without the essentials is all they will ever have known.

Worst of all, the research finds that destitution – the very deepest poverty in the UK – has risen extremely sharply in recent years. 2.4 million people, including 500 000 children experienced destitution in 2019, a rise of more than a third since 2017.

The cost-of-living crisis is rightly at the top of the political agenda and is likely to stay there. Higher prices in the shops and massive increases in energy bills will undoubtedly feel challenging for many people across the country. But it is those who are already struggling to afford the basics or are teetering on the brink of hardship and debt, who should be our priority.

In 2019, the Conservative manifesto promised to reduce child poverty. On January 5 this year the Prime Minister said that “the Government is determined” to “support the poorest people”. These are the right commitments, but we are already seeing signs that the dire situation laid out in this report is getting worse.

In many places, charities are bearing the brunt of the escalating crisis. A survey before last Christmas found that three quarters of charity leaders were worried staff were at risk of burnout. They had already seen demand rising and expected pressure to build further into this year. Crisis estimates that over 200,000 families are experiencing homelessness. Food banks are recording record rises in demand. We hear about families unable to afford beds for their children. There was recently a news story about a family who had to move a lightbulb around their temporary home because they couldn’t afford more than one.

The situation was made worse by the Chancellor’s decision in last Autumn’s Budget to cut social security support for those out of work to the lowest level in 30 years. It was hugely encouraging to see him invest in Universal Credit and boost help for workers on low incomes. However, the choice to direct that additional funding solely towards those able to work has left large numbers of the very poorest families unable to keep up with bills and horribly exposed to the price rises to come.

In the short term, the Government needs to step in and protect those facing the greatest hardship over the next few months, as inflation climbs to six per cent and energy bills rise by between 40 and 50 per cent. Energy bill hikes will affect large parts of the country, but for those on middle incomes, they will only take up around six per cent of their income.

By contrast, low-income households will be spending nearly a fifth of their income on energy, with some on the lowest incomes finding over half of their cash eaten up by energy costs. With budgets already stretched beyond coping, many will have no choice but to stay cold and go hungry. Targeting additional support towards those facing the greatest hardship (for instance through a one-off grant for all those on Universal Credit, legacy benefits and Pension Credit) would be a far better use of public money than a thinly spread VAT cut.

Just as importantly, we must get to grips with the underlying drivers of rising and deepening poverty. Over the last decade, we have largely succeeded in getting those who can work into jobs. But too many of those jobs have not protected people from poverty. This is not just about the level of hourly pay – workers at high risk of poverty are often stuck in part time and insecure jobs. Using the promised Employment Bill to increase job security for those at the bottom of the labour market would be a significant step forward. Opening up better quality, better paid jobs to people who need to work part time would massively boost the prospects of disabled people, parents and carers.

Reducing costs is just as important as boosting incomes. A million private renters are stuck paying rents they can’t afford and thus far polices to increase home ownership and make renting more affordable have failed to help. Investing in social housing could free 600,000 people from poverty, as well as rebooting a genuine pathway to ownership for those on low incomes. Tackling high energy costs is harder, but better regulation of the energy market (with Ofgem’s failures starkly set out in this Citizen’s Advice report), increasing the UK’s storage facilities and going further and faster on energy efficiency measures would all help.

And we must revisit the question of the adequacy of support for those who cannot work or can only work a low number of hours. As Baroness Stroud argued after the Universal Credit cut last Autumn – “as well as rewarding work, our welfare system must always protect society’s most vulnerable.” It cannot be right that we have allowed our social security system to be eroded so far that it traps disabled people, carers and children in such hardship.

Maya Forstater: One’s sex can’t change. The story of my fight to ensure this view is judged “worthy of respect”.

14 Jun

Radical is a civil-rights campaign for truth and freedom on matters of sex and gender, committed to free expression and equal respect, founded by Rebecca Lowe and Victoria Hewson. This Radical piece is written by Maya Forstater, an independent researcher, writer and adviser.

Last week, I won a landmark Employment Tribunal case where my belief that sex is real, immutable and important was found to be “worthy of respect in a democratic society”.

The case concerned freedom of speech and belief, and how far employers can constrain these rights when it comes to talking about sex and gender.

The test of being “worthy of respect in a democratic society” is meant to be a low bar, ruling out only the extremist views of literal nazis and violent revolutionaries. The first tribunal found that my belief fell into this category. The appeal judge disagreed.

The judgment states clearly that no one has the right to harass others at work and, importantly, protects everyone from discrimination based on their belief or lack of belief. This means it protects people like me who think that the words “male” and “female” relate to sperm and eggs and the bodies built to deliver them. It also protects those who believe in innate-but-fluid gendered identities, and who prioritise  “gender expression” over anatomy.

The judgment sets a precedent that should encourage Liz Truss and Boris Johnson to stop the practice of Whitehall Departments and other public bodies bending the knee to the gender lobby by pledging their allegiance to Stonewall.

My story starts in 2018. While working for an international development think tank, I had begun tweeting and writing, in my own time, about sex and gender, during the government’s consultation on reform of the Gender Recognition Act.

Some staff at the headquarters in Washington, D.C. took exception and this set off an escalating process. The organisation panicked, my tweets were compiled, diversity and inclusion consultants were drafted in to assess them, and even though I was not found to have broken any rules or policies, the senior leadership conceded to the will of the offended that I should be cast out. Ultimately, I lost my job.

My belief that sex is real should be utterly unremarkable. This is what the law says, after all.

But it has taken me over two years and £120,000 in crowd-funded legal fees to get this far. I still need to return to the Employment Tribunal for it to decide whether I was discriminated against in practice.

Despite telling my employer that I would use any preferred pronouns that people wanted and would always act with usual professional politeness, I have been put through a two-year nightmare, had my career destroyed and been painted as an extremist “transphobe”  too dangerous to associate with.

Along the way, I have also been investigated by the Scout Association (where I was a Cub Scout Leader) after a bearded man I had never met reported my use of the pronoun “he” instead of “they” for that person  on Twitter. The Scout Association dragged me through a complaint process over 18 months. I was told to apologise to the man who had called me “transphobic”, a “TERF” and “scum”, and who had said that I would leave young people dead and was unfit to be a Scout leader.

Indeed, the Scout Association partially agreed. The fact that I had taken my employer to tribunal, and judgment of the first judge, were taken as evidence that I might not be fit to be a Scout Leader.

Another set of doors that were slammed in my face were legal. My employment tribunal case was turned away by two law firms (one that dropped it just a few days before I was due to launch the crowdfunding campaign). The Solicitors Regulation Authority responded to my complaint by saying that it did not breach its code “if a firm declined to act because the client’s views conflicted with its own principles and values, as long as these were not discriminatory”.

I have been turned down for jobs at other think tanks and universities, and all but erased from history in the sector where I worked. This has happened even as my inbox fills up with messages from former colleagues, professional networks and eminent professors saying that they agree with me but cannot say so publicly for fear for their own careers.

It is not that I have said anything extreme to warrant this, or that I have been a uniquely unlucky target.  The new organisation I have co-founded, Sex Matters, has heard from dozens of people, in a wide variety of sectors, who have been investigated and subject to workplace discipline for such crimes as liking tweets, defending J.K. Rowling or questioning workplace policies. Meanwhile, thousands  more people are afraid to speak up.

The Kafkaesque nightmare we find ourselves in reflects the capture of the levers of policy- and decision-making by a small but influential group of LGBT+ lobbying organisations.

This is institutionalised through the Stonewall Diversity Champions Scheme. It covers 25 per cent of the UK workforce  and includes  organisations ranging from the Government Legal Department, the Ministry of Justice and the Solicitors Regulation Authority to the BBC and Ofcom, as well as almost all universities, major private sector employers and voluntary organisations from Citizen’s Advice to Save the Children. Stonewall’s prescriptions are delivered by a churning cast of “account managers”: young men and women fresh out of university in shiny suits and directional haircuts assess the policies of major organisations, and tell them what to do and say when employees dissent.

Every day we receive emails from people within Stonewalled organisations who say they fear for their jobs.  They talk of the  “Stonewall Stasi”: internal “LGBTQI+ Allies” groups who are empowered to thought-police their colleagues. As part of the Stonewall scheme the groups undertake “reverse mentoring”, where a young cadre-member will re-educate senior management. They write policies on micro-aggressions and pronouns (which of course it would be a micro-aggression to question) and set up ever more intricate tripwires of language with which to set off new rounds of complaints.

Straight “allies” often outnumber homosexuals and transsexuals in these groups. Many of those who write to us and say they are afraid are gays and lesbians who have found themselves on the wrong side of Stonewall’s new sexless world.

My win is a step towards stopping this madness. It clarifies that there is legal  protection against discrimination and harassment for people who do not subscribe to the dogma that “trans women are women; trans men are men”, that “demisexual” is a sexual orientation, or that men can be lesbians. It protects those who refuse to call themselves “cis”, do not feel the need to put pronouns in their email signature or wear a rainbow lanyard.

It also provides protection for those who aren’t involved in political debates on sex and gender at all, but who know that sometimes sex matters. This includes elderly women on hospital wards, religious women asking for a female health-care professional and children in school who don’t want a gender-confused teenager of the opposite sex in their showers.

None of this justifies or requires hostility or harassment of people with a transgender identity. But we do not have to remake all of reality for them, and nor should complaints processes be used to harass, bully and victimise others.

No one else should have to go through the nightmare I and my family have been put through. The government should withdraw all government departments from the Stonewall Scheme, and produce simple, straightforward guidance on single-sex services, and on freedom of belief as provided for by law.