Tuesday, 8 July 2014

June 2014 - How was it for you?

June started with the government setting out its legislative agenda for the next year in the Queen’s Speech. For the first time ever both the proposer and seconder of the Speech were female, with both Penny Mordaunt (Con, Portsmouth North) and Annette Brook (Lib Dem, Mid Dorset and North Poole) receiving much praise for their respective work in welcoming the traditional opening of Parliament. Not being expected to cause any great political earthquakes, the day conformed to expectations. The Childcare Payments Bill and Modern Slavery Bill had already been confirmed in the months leading up to June, so perhaps the announcements that will have the most impact on women in particular were regarding the two pensions bills or the Armed Forces Bill.

The government is looking to create more flexibility surrounding how people save for their retirement, and how they eventually use these savings, with two new bills. This is certainly good news for those individuals (often, though not always, female) who have not been in continuous employment throughout their lives. Flexibility, if coupled with the creation of new products from industry, will help people to build a plan that fits them, rather than fitting in to a plan designed for a more traditional working life. The Dutch style ‘collective’ pensions that will be allowed by the Pension Schemes Bill will allow savers to pool risk, potentially allowing for greater returns coupled with greater certainty. Perfect for those who need a dependable income in old age, yet have been unable to save small amounts consistently in one of the lower risk schemes that are currently available.

The Armed Forces Bill will establish an ombudsman to whom military personnel can refer their complaints, should they feel that they have been unfairly treated. Such legislation should be of benefit to people of all genders, but benefit will certainly be derived by women and LGBT individuals serving in the forces in light of a number of terrible bullying and harassment cases that have been brought to our attention in recent months.

With both these bills having only recently been introduced there will be plenty of developments to follow, but given that the Speech was otherwise relatively thin on the ground, the major debates over the next year are likely to centre around ongoing manifesto development in the run-up to the general election.

Westminster was not only setting out the political agenda for the UK in June, Foreign Secretary William Hague also brought the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict to London, allowing British figures to take centre stage in the fight.

The conjunction of political figures and celebrities is often toe-curlingly cringe worthy. However, the pairing of Hague and Angelina Jolie worked weirdly well, perhaps due to her unapologetic commitment to UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and his good-sense to do his job and not try to ‘be cool’. Whilst raising awareness amongst parliamentarians and other political stakeholders, the Department for International Development announced an extra £5m in funding to address the problem and a new protocol was launched to increase prosecutions of sexual violence in conflict zones.

At the other end of the success spectrum last month was the ever thorny interaction between faith and education. Extremism allegedly imposed by governors at schools in Birmingham snowballed when the Education Secretary and Home Secretary fell out over the handling of it. In the ‘Trojan Horse’ scandal, as it became known, it transpired that Birmingham Education Authority had ignored warnings regarding extremism creeping in to the day-to-day operation of a number of schools over the last 12 years. Though all relevant, and plenty of irrelevant, avenues were pursued at length by the press regarding this case, the government remained focused on the important, though not all-consuming, issue of national security with an occasional aside to the possibility that gender segregation had occurred in classrooms.

Embarrassingly dragged to the Commons by the shadow home secretary, Theresa May was forced to give a statement on the government’s counter-extremism strategy whilst Michael Gove looked on and waited his turn. A number of important issues were covered, despite the political wrangling regarding whether the two secretaries of state could possibly work together moving forward, but there was a glaring omission. When Julian Huppert (Lib Dem, Cambridge) asked May about PSHE provision at the Birmingham schools, she said that Huppert had ‘worked hard’ to get this issue in to a debate about extremism in schools, implying that there were no relevant implications of extremism for the personal, health and social education of children and young adults at these schools.

As important as different faiths can be for different people personally; health, social, and the unfortunately euphemised part of PSHE, sex education, are integral to progress towards a more equal and respectful society. Without the provision of unbiased information and education regarding these integral parts of life, misinformation and misunderstanding will hinder the empowerment of girls, who will remain unaware of the choices and rights. It will also allow the myths in the male community regarding everything from consent to harassment to persist. This might be preaching to the converted, or perhaps just preaching, but for the Home Secretary to imply that a perversion of a full and inclusive education is not a rightful part of last month’s debate is really quite disconcerting.

Patrice Merrin, Glencore Xstrata's 
first female board-member

To end on a positive note, June saw the last FTSE100 company without a woman on the board, Glencore Xstrata, appoint one. Have the powers that be been reading last month’s edition of How Was It For You? Well, on top of that, they’ve been listening to Mr Cable and his team. For all the Lib Dems' issues over the course of this government, not to mention their lack of female representatives, they have certainly pushed the women’s agenda harder than the coalition colleagues. More of this please.

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