Thursday, 14 June 2018

Gender and geography dictate how politically powerful we feel.

Reports published by the Hansard Society and the All Party Parliamentary Group on Sex Equality claim that gender and where they live influence how much political power individuals feel they are able to exert.

Research conducted by Lawrence McKay of Manchester University using data from the Hansard Society’s Audit of Political Engagement shows the influence geography had on how people relate to politics, particularly how much influence they feel themselves to have over decision making.

McKay found that people living in London felt they had most influence, whilst those living in Wales and Scotland felt they had the least. Out of the English regions people in the North East felt they had the least influence over the political process.

Where voters live, McKay suggests, nay have a greater influence on how people engage with politics than factors such as income or education.

This distancing of people outside London from the political process could, he suggests, by their physical distance from the seat of power and the fact that people living in the regions seldom see people who are like them represented as members of the political class.

Gender and health, both physical and mental, are also powerful indicators of how influential individuals are likely to feel. A point made by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Sex Equality in the report ‘Invisible Women’ written in partnership with the Fawcett Society and the Young Women’s Trust.

Launching the report Chair of the group Jess Phillips MP said, ‘millions of women are invisible in Westminster’s evidence and thinking', adding that ‘unless we see women in all their diversity, we will make the wrong decisions and will not achieve equality'.

The report shows that women and particularly women of colour are often overlooked by policy makers and those responsible for designing services. This is especially evident in relation to employment support and mental health services, creating what the group describe as a climate of ‘multiple discrimination’.

The report calls for improved data collection to allow policy makers to understand the experience of diverse groups of women and for a review of how services respond to the needs of women and members of other protected groups. It also recommends that it be made easier for individuals to bring claims of bring discriminated against on the grounds of more than one characteristic.

At the launch of the report Fawcett Society chief executive Sam Smithers said that policy makers ‘repeatedly overlook the women who are in the most need and who experience the greatest disadvantage; that has to change’.

Dr Carole Easton, chief executive of the Young Women’s Trust, said that ‘more needs to be done to improve young women’s prospects,’ particularly those from groups that face disadvantage if they are not to face ‘a lifetime of inequality’.

The aim of the report was, Jess Phillips said to work towards a situation where the UK has ‘data, policy, the law and services’ capable of recognising ‘women’s diverse experiences’ and furthering their interests.

Monday, 11 June 2018

Walking our way back to health.

Walking is good for us, walking briskly for just ten minutes every day can bring about dramatic improvements in physical and mental health.

Globally the World Health Organisation cites being physically inactive as the fourth greatest risk factor for early mortality. People with active lifestyles have a 25% to 35% lower risk of heart disease, they also have a lower risk of obesity, cancer and diabetes.

Being physically active is also something that helps to promotes mental wellbeing.

Figures published by Public Health England show that 4 in 10 adults aged between 40 and 60, 40% of the people surveyed said they walked briskly less than once a month.

This is matched by figures for the number of people who reported being physically inactive, meaning they do less than thirty minutes moderately intense activity a week.

Three million adults in the 40 to 60 age group reported being physically inactive, with proportionally more living in the West Midlands (23%), compared to the South East and South West (15%).

Professor Paul Cosford Managing Director of Public Health England said in a statement to the media 'managing all the pressures of everyday life can mean that exercise takes a back seat, building a brisk walk into your daily routine is a simple way to get more active.'

The NHS Choices website recommends building walking more into what you do every day by getting off the bus one stop earlier and using the stairs instead of taking the lift.

We all know being more active is good for our health, but the sofa exerts a magnetic pull, never mind, if you are of the generation most in need of moving more, having been put off exercise for life by Kes style games lessons at school.

Walking, perhaps, offers a gentler and less competitive alternative requiring no expensive kit and unflattering Lycra outfits. At least it would if it were made a bit easier to do.

Advising people to walk briskly for ten minutes a day and giving them a whizzy app with which to track their progress is all well and good; but creating an environment where that isn't a chore would be even better.

That means spending money on making public spaces safe and welcoming and creating a working culture where people can go for a, not so gentle, stroll at lunchtime without feeling they are at risk of being judged as slackers.

Tasks that put the ball firmly back in the court of local and national government, with employers and the NHS warming up on the side-lines.

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

The poverty gap for working families is turning into a chasm.

Families with children where one or both parents work are living further below the poverty line than they were in 2008 with those employed in the public- sector faring worst.

Using data from the Households Below Average Income (HBAI) statistics produced by the Department of Work and Pensions Professor Jonathan Bradshaw and Dr Antonia Keung of the Department of Social Policy at the University of York have identified an increase in the median poverty gap.

In 2007/08 the gap before housing costs stood at £41.60 per week, after housing costs were added this rose to £50.40. The 2016/17 HBAI data shows a respective rise to £57.40 and £63.00.

Further pressures are added to squeezed family budgets by in work benefits failing to keep pace with rises in the cost of living. The harsh conditionality of the welfare system has, according the University of York's WELCOND project, resulted in poor health and financial outcomes for many claimants and may have driven some to commit crime to survive.

Writing in the report Bradshaw and Keung say ' the UK has tended in the past to have had comparatively high poverty rates, but low poverty gaps. This has been thanks to a fairly comprehensive but quite low minimum income scheme'.

They go on to say that since the recession this has been undermined by the government's austerity policies, leading to a situation where poverty rates may be falling, but the number of children living in poverty is increasing and they are further below the poverty line than ever before.

Figures produced by Landman Economics for the TUC show there will be a million more working households with children living in poverty this year, a rise of 50% since 2010, taking the total to 3.1million. The factors driving this increase, the research claims, include weak wage growth and the rising number of people in insecure work.

Public sector workers have been hit hardest with their average income falling by £83.00 a week since 2010, workers in the private sector have seen their wages fall by £32.00 a week over the same period.

The rise in child poverty has been highest in the East Midlands (76%), with the West Midlands (66%) and Northern Ireland (60%) close behind.

TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady said the government was 'in denial over how many working families can't make ends meet '.

She concluded that the government needs to ' boost the minimum wage now and use the social security system to make sure no child grows up in a family struggling to get by'.

Thursday, 31 May 2018

National Parks are a good thing, but less photogenic green spaces matter too.

Britain may get some new National Parks, according to ‘energetic' environment secretary Michael Give. There are currently ten, along with thirty- four sites designated as areas of outstanding natural beauty.

The first national parks, the Peak District, Snowdonia and Dartmoor, were created in 1951, as the seventieth anniversary rolls around Give has ordered a review to be led by former Conservative Party aide Julian Glover.

Writing in the Sunday Telegraph last week Mr Gove said it was ‘time to look afresh' at these iconic landscapes with a view to making ‘sure they are not only conserved but enhanced for the next generation’.

You would need to be a true cynic not to have your heart lifted by landscapes that have been inspiring artists and everyone else since the Enlightenment. The trouble is when it comes to Tory environment policy in general and pretty much everything involving Michael Gove; a little bit of me will always be profoundly cynical.

The Tories talk a good game on the environmental, not least because it plays into the ‘blood and soil' patriotism of members in the shire counties once described by David Cameron as the ‘turnip Taliban’. When it comes to delivering anything tangible they tend to be found wanting.

Their enthusiasm for fracking and the expensive white elephant that is HS2 knows no bounds, New Labour may have had form when it comes to selling off school playing fields to developers, but the Tories have hardly donned armour to protect them since 2010.

As for the perennially busy Mr Gove, he is the archetype of a politician in a hurry. Why waste time with half measures when you can charge at an issue head on? Particularly when doing so might help with the great (to him anyway) of seeing our hero standing on the doorstep of Downing Street.

What really worries me though is that the wrong problem is being addressed. It would be cause for air punching joy if any government were to create more national parks, they aren’t perfect, but they do protect landscapes that are a public good from being exploited.

The real issue is protecting those green spaces that aren’t as photogenic as Dartmoor or the Cairngorm’s, but matter hugely to the communities that use them. These are the places most threatened by drive the regeneration of areas facing economic challenges by building executive housing.

The thinking behind this is that all it takes is a ready supply of detached houses and investment will follow, except for when it doesn’t of course. Needless to say, the shortage of affordable housing is ignored by this ‘if you build it they will come' approach.

We need, desperately, to build the right sort of houses in the right places, with decent transport links and amenities. Gobbling up the wood at the end of the road or the scrubby bit of field where people have walked their dogs since forever to build a pocket estate of executive boxes will be of benefit to nobody.

In fact, it is hugely damaging to communities that have used these spaces for decades and risk along with being made more cramped and polluted as a result. It shouldn’t surprise anyone outside Whitehall that such spaces tend to get developed in areas that are already facing serious challenges.

The idea behind creating the national parks back in the fifties was that access to the countryside with all the benefits associated should be for everyone. In the spirit of which we should fight for every green space as a common good that should be held in trust for those to as much as those landscapes deemed iconic.

We may not always win; but it would send a powerful message about what we value and how we want to live.

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Stress is proving seriously bad for the health of our society and the economy.

Stress is an issue of growing concern for policy makers, a report published by the Mental Health Foundation shows the extent of the damage it is causing to our national health.

The report based on a YouGov poll of 4169 UK adults shows that 74% of the respondents said they had been so stressed in the past year they found it difficult to function.

The causes of stress are multiple and complex, ranging from major life events to multiple minor annoyances.

Amongst those cited by respondents coping with their own long- term illness or that of a relative was a major cause of stress in the over 55’s (44%).

Young people report high levels of stress associated with feeling pressure to be or appear successful (60%) and constantly comparing themselves to others (49%).

Debt was cited as a cause of stress by 22% of respondents along with worries connected to housing. Younger people were significantly more stressed about this issue (32% of 18-24 year olds), the older people get the less of a concern it appears to be, 22% of 44-54 year olds were stressed about housing and by age 55 this falls to 7%.

In general stress seems to be a problem that inversely affects younger people with only 7% of respondents in the 18-24 age group saying they never felt stressed compared to 30% of older ones.

Conditions in the workplace also feed the UK’s problem with stress, figures produced by the Health and Safety Executive(H&SE) for 2016/17 show 526,000 instances of stress related absence. Public sector workers are more likely to take time off sick due to stress with tight deadlines and lack of support from management being given as the main causes.

A report produced by the Centre for Economic and Business Research in 2017 gives the annual cost to the UK of time off taken due to stress as £18billion, saying the problem has increased dramatically since 2011 and could cost the economy £26 billion by 2030 if nothing is done to address the issue (Source: Personnel Today).

Stress can be helpful in controlled amounts because it helps us to be alert and maximizes performance in the short term. Experienced for long periods it can exacerbate or cause serious physical and mental health problems.

This can include damaging the body’s immune and digestive systems, it can also encourage unhealthy behaviours. Respondents to the YouGov poll spoke about eating unhealthily (46%) and drinking too much (29%) to try and cope with stress.

They also described the impact stress, which is not seen as a condition in its own right, has had on their mental health, 51% reported feeling depressed, 61% said it had made them feel anxious and 37% said they had experienced loneliness as a result of being stressed.

The report makes several recommendations for tackling the problems associated with stress. These include better support for public sector workers, mental health literacy training in schools and for employers to treat mental health in the workplace as a health and safety issue.

It also calls on health professionals to treat stress more seriously, there is still a residual scepticism as the ‘stiff upper lip’ school of medical thought continues to, if only implicitly, shape policy.

The most important recommendation the report makes though is that the government funds detailed research into the causes and prevalence of stress, focussing on the impact of welfare reforms.

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Poverty in the classroom teaches us a painful lesson about inequality.

Classrooms across the UK are fast becoming the front line in the struggle to get by after almost a decade of austerity.

A report compiled by the Child Poverty Action Group and the National Education Union, based on a survey of 908 union members working across the education sector from nurseries to secondary schools reveals the extent of the problem.

It also highlights the increasing role played by teachers and support workers in picking up the slack as benefits are frozen and services cut to the bone.

Amongst the members surveyed 53% said they had dipped into their own pocket to subsidize books and stationary, one teacher quoted in the report said staff ‘regularly purchase clothing, food and supplies for students and their families’.

This includes sanitary towels and other hygiene products.

In addition, 13% said their school ran a low- cost food club and 16% said their school either ran a food bank or provided subsidized meals for students.

Access to a warm meal during the school day was an area of concern for many respondents, with children with disabilities or special educational needs and those from refugee families most at risk of missing out.

As one teacher put it ‘the bar has been raised, so some families who would have had free school meals no longer do'.

Over half the respondents (56%) said children entitled to free school meals are missing out because their parents are either intimidated by the bureaucratic process involved or fear they will be stigmatized as a result.

One respondent parents fearing their child would be ‘seen as a statistic:’ and so were missing out on nutrition vital to their development.

In general, 87% of the teachers surveyed said they believed that poverty was having a negative impact on their student’s education, with 60% saying the problem has got worse in the past three years.

The struggle to get by faced by families in poverty of living on low incomes has created a situation where many young people miss out on basic things like bring able to travel to visit friends or family, as one respondent said this is ‘heart breaking’.

Poverty experienced in childhood can have an impact on physical health and mental wellbeing that lasts a lifetime. This had been attested to by academic research going back for decades, to which this report only adds.

The only place where this truth does not seem to be self- evident is in the corridors of power. New Labour made limited attempts to address the problem but were hamstrung by a fear of appearing socialist; the coalition and the Tories have ignored it entirely.

Faced up to or ignored the problem of poverty and its social consequences still exits, there is a real risk that future generations will be seriously harmed along with the future stability of our economy and society.

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

We need to look beyond the shiny tech sector to solve the productivity puzzle.

We have record levels of employment and yet the UK lags behind Europe and much of the rest of the world in productivity.

When it comes to addressing the conundrum of why British workers produce less than their French and German counterparts the default setting of most politicians is to talk about technology as the solution. Partly, you suspect, because they like being photographed with the latest piece of space age kit almost as much as they do bring snapped walking around a hospital.

A year long research project carried out by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) suggests we should be looking elsewhere. The real productivity problem lies with low waged sectors like hospitality and retail.

This isn’t a reflection on a lack of investment or any deficiency in the skills of workers. It is a result of how staff are used and the problem that has dogged British industry for decades; poor management.

Low productivity, described in an editorial written for Prospect magazine by Rain Newton Smith and Ashwin Kumar as the ‘most intractable problem’ faced by the UK doesn’t just hit the profits of corporations, it drives down wages and living standards too.

Government responses, they write, has tended to focus on the ‘shiny and new frontier firms' at the economy’s cutting edge. Important stuff no doubt, but it misses the point.

There are and always will be more people doing, allegedly, mundane jobs than brilliant innovators. A balanced economy with a sense of purpose values both because both are necessary.

A few companies, Newton Smith and Kumar cite cosmetics retailer Lush and the nation’s favourite pie seller Gregg’s, as examples of employers who are working to ‘improve staff skills and wages, keeping them motivated and adding value to each store.

The majority though take the fork in the road marked ‘Taylorism’ with its relentless micromanagement and deadening imperatives to make humans act like robots. This, as our flat lining national productivity shows, hasn’t been a success; more to the point any limited benefits gained haven’t been shared with workers.

This is a reprise of an old, old story in British industry, frantic and frankly pointless bean counting on a voyage to the narrowest of horizons. Having been cut out of the loop when it comes from profiting from working harder you wonder not so much at employees being demotivated so much as that they continue to make anything more than a token effort.

The JRF recommend that any future interventions aimed at improving productivity must benefit workers as well as their capital owning bosses. They also call for better management practices and less use of casual labour.

It has taken a Conservative Party constitutionally disposed to think having an industrial strategy is the first step towards Communism an age to come around to the idea that the UK needs one.

Now they have with the shadow of Brexit hanging over the economy it needs to be written with the findings published by the JRF in mind. If that doesn’t happen we risk slipping into an economic backwater and a dangerous political crisis.