Misogyny, sexism and male-on-female violence is a problem for men to resolve, not women

(This item was first published in the Brighton Argus on 13th October. The sentences in italics were removed by the Argus prior to publication).

The sexual assault of a woman in Meeting House Lane has been described by police as ‘an isolated incident’ as reported in the Brighton Argus yesterday (12th October 2021). How can something be described as isolated when sexual harassment and sexual assaults are a daily occurrence, where domestic sexual assaults are commonplace, and when at least three women are murdered each week.

The one thing that brings all these together, making them not isolated incidents, is that the perpetrators are almost exclusively men.

It is one reason why I am supporting the fantastic #CallHimOut initiative by the Lewes Football Club’s men’s team against the epidemic of misogyny, sexism and male-on-female violence. In a statement the club has said that “it’s time, it’s way beyond time, that men took personal responsibility for what all women have to endure, day in, day out. This is a problem for men to resolve, not women.”

The principle of #CallHimOut is that whenever a man hears or sees something said or done that they feel is disrespectful, sexist or harmful in any way to a woman, whether she’s there or not, they will speak to that man and they will #CallHimOut. 

I know from personal experience that doing so isn’t easy, particularly in a sporting environment. Back in the early 1990s after I objected to sexist exchanges in the pub after a cricket game, I was never again asked to play for the team. It was distressing but nowhere near as distressing as the experience of women who are on the receiving end of demeaning comments, unwanted advances, and ‘isolated’ sexual assaults.

There is an increasing recognition of unhealthy attitudes and dangerous behaviours in police forces up and down the country. Perhaps male officers in Sussex Police and the Police Federation itself could #CallHimOut and, thereby, begin to rebuild trust in policing. 

Blaming Brexit for the current ills of the country is a sloppy, unproductive exercise

KFC is running out of chicken, and McDonald’s has run out of milkshakes. Hauliers are complaining of a shortage of hauliers, and fruit and veg remains unpicked in the fields. The construction industry has said that there is a shortage of labour. Today ITN is reporting that care providers are experiencing the greatest-ever shortage of staff.

What is to blame for this? “Brexit”, everyone (or at least Guardian readers and many people in Brighton and Hove) will shout.

The cause is much more complex, of course.

One of the Leavers’ slogans was “gaining control of our borders”. The previous ‘hostile environment’ has now been put on steroids. We hear more and more of “illegal asylum seekers” trying to get into the U.K. (Please note, that being an asylum seeker is not ‘illegal’. Trying to criminalise vulnerable people fleeing persecution, even death, is wrong.  It is not illegal, and suggesting it is is disingenuous and shameful).

Back to “gaining control of our borders”. Since the U.K. left the EU, the government has failed on so many levels regarding the border. When there was clear evidence that the Covid Delta variant was reaping a tragic havoc in India, the government closed the borders to Pakistan and Bangladesh, but failed to control the border to those travelling from India (and before that South Africa, Brazil, the USA, etc. where there was clear evidence of a threat to the U.K. population).

As for labour shortages, the government has, inexplicably, done the opposite. While Brexit has resulted in the U.K. withdrawing from the arrangement that allowed the free movement of labour, ‘controlling the border’ should not mean closing the border to those skilled and unskilled workers on whom the country and its economy rely. Politicians who have allowed that may be pandering to their base, but it is certainly harming the economy. 

The labour shortages we are experiencing were not inevitable and easily avoidable. A simplistic condemnation of Brexit, and trying to reopen that debate is as futile as it is unhelpful. It really is time to move on.

An account of two different approaches to Covid-19 Track and Trace

A few weeks ago, on a Saturday morning, we received notification that a member of staff in one of our services had tested positive for Covid. It was the result of one of the numerous routine tests that are carried out on a weekly basis throughout the organisation.

The member of staff was not on duty that weekend and was, in fact, away at a music festival. Unfortunately, his phone was turned off. What followed was various attempts by four or five of us to track down somebody who might be with him and who might have had their phone on. I spent some time myself phoning former colleagues who know him socially, and others made similar attempts to track him down.

Finally, we were able to contact him and he took all the necessary steps to isolate himself and safeguard others. He emailed me the other day saying that he only now realises the level of detective work that went into locating him. He said he was “snoozing in a dappled glade” when he got the text message after doing a night as one of the welfare crew at the festival which, ironically, included reminding people about Covid procedures!

His next comment was most illuminating.  He said: “I was surprised that Track and Trace only made one attempt to call on the no reply number.” He said that he himself then called around 30 people with whom he had been in contact. Some of the crew went into isolation and lost their pay, an 18th birthday celebration was cancelled, and a friend who works with elderly people went into her third isolation. He said: “It gave me an idea of the web of connections and effects of a positive result.”

The efforts that we went to in order to track him down on a Saturday, doing unpaid overtime, compares favourably to the one attempt made by Track and Trace using a no reply number.

Can someone remind me how much Track and Trace is costing us as taxpayers? Apparently it is costing us more than the Channel Tunnel. My colleague said: “Track and Tree seems pretty lame in my experience! BHT Sussex certainly has been consistent throughout and my managers have created a culture where masks, etc., feel natural. I do events work as one of my jobs and wish some of the organisers were as on it as BHT.”

I wish Track and Trace was on it.

Why now is precisely the time to take extra care about Covid

On Thursday I was ‘pinged’ by NHS Track and Trace saying that I have been in contact with someone who has tested positive for Covid-19. I now have to stay at home until next Saturday. This is so frustrating and inconvenient. I have had to cancel a couple of things I had planned and I am unable to go out for my regular early morning cycle rides.

When I mentioned being pinged on social media, one person commented that this was a good reason not to download the Track and Trace App. On the contrary, this is precisely the reason to download the app and to sign in when going in to shops, cafes and restaurants. While I accept that the chances of me having contracted Covid will be small, there is nevertheless a chance, and there is a chance that I might transmit it to someone else.

This morning (27th June 2021) Andrew Marr revealed that he had contracted Covid, probably at the G7 summit in Cornwall, despite having been fully jabbed. He said that he had symptoms akin to ‘a summer cold’ and said it had been ‘really, really quite unpleasant’.

I appreciate that the previous lockdowns have had severe economic and mental health impacts, and that the delay in lifting the current restrictions are frustrating, I fear what will come next. Large groups are gathering for social events, including to watch the football. Tuesday’s England-Germany game is likely to be a super-spreader event. I heard last week that a group watching football at a pub in Brighton have had to self-isolate while another group all have contracted Covid and have passed it on to their partners.

Fortunately the vaccination programme is producing some remarkable results and the severity of infections appears to be less severe although, as Andrew Marr says, it is ‘really, really quite unpleasant’. 

What worries me is the sharp increase in infections locally. In Brighton and Hove in the week to 3rd June, there were 24 cases per 100,000 of the population. A week later this had increased to 62 per 100,000. By the 14th this was up to 99 and had crept above the national average of 81. Four days later (18th) it was 115, and 128 on the 21st.

Boris Johnson has said that there will be no going back to lockdown. I fear we have heard that sentiment before. While a delay in so-called ‘Independence Day’ was prudent, I fear that patience with restrictions is running thin, not helped by the hypocrisy of the former Health Secretary, Matt Hancock. 

People are becoming complacent about the risk to themselves once they have had their second jabs.  The U.K. has one of the highest Covid vaccination rates in the world. Yet we are seeing a surge in coronavirus cases largely attributed to the delta variant that first originated in India.

My predictions?

  • There will be a continuing surge associated with the delta variant.
  • There will be further variants emerging.
  • There will have to be a further national lockdown.

I hope the government will not repeat the mistakes it has made in the past, by delaying measures. Better a week early than a day late. 

Have compassion for those begging, but don’t give money

(This item first appeared in the Brighton and Hove Independent on 25th June 2021)

Over the years I have surprised people by the uncompromising stance I take about begging.  Some people think that, as the chief executive of a charity working with homeless people, I should be more sympathetic to the plight of those who do beg.

I have huge compassion for those who beg.  But begging has little to do with homelessness and almost everything to do with addiction.  Someone who has a sign stating that they need £20 for a room in a hostel makes a compelling pitch, but the truth is no hostel in Brighton for homeless people charges up front.

A minority of those begging are forced to do so by gangs or, in the case of some women, by abusive and exploitative male partners.  These women often have to get money for their partners who control every aspect of their lives, taking their money, forcing them into begging and prostitution, and using their medication and drugs, as well as violence, as coercive weapons.

None of this excuses any anti-social behaviour, but it might help some to have greater compassion.  You won’t know the harrowing back-stories of many people who beg, particularly those of women, nor the repeated trauma that they might have experienced or are continuing to experience.

Should you give money to people who beg?  I, personally, never do.  It feeds addictions and can result in people not taking up those offers of support that are available.

Change is possible.  Recovery from addiction in possible.  Through the Addiction Services run by BHT Sussex we see people coming off the streets and overcoming their addictions, going on to live lives free from alcohol and drugs.

If you or someone you know needs help with their addictions, contact either CGL on 01273 731900 or BHT’s Addiction Services on 01273 604245. BHT Sussex

The Housing Crisis told through Greek Mythology

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus, the king of Epghyra, was punished for cheating death by being forced to roll an huge boulder up a hill only for it to roll down every time it neared the top, repeating this action for eternity. As a result, laborious and futile tasks are sometimes described as Sisyphean.

I was thinking about poor old Sisyphus when considering government housing policy, specifically the money being thrown at schemes like Help to Buy that are designed to help people on to the housing ladder. Notwithstanding that such policies do little, if anything, to increase the supply of truly affordable housing, they exacerbate the very problem they seek to address. The cost of buying goes up with each new initiative that is announced to help people to get on the property ladder.

The more the government pours into these schemes, the more they fuel house price inflation.  They roll the boulder up the hill only to see if roll down and they start all over again, pouring in yet more public funds trying to tackle the affordability crisis in their all-too-predictable Sisyphean manner.

But this is where the simile ends. Of course it is hardly any sweat for government ministers to spend public funds, especially when the few who benefit from this transfer of public funds are house builders who, as a result of the overheated housing market, see their profits increase, even after making donations to the political party of their choice.

This is where another Greek mythological character comes in.  Tantalus was also punished, in his case by being put in a pool of water that drained away every time he bent down to drink, hence the word ‘tantalising’.

For those won over by schemes like Help to Buy, it is a tantalising prospect, but they find that the very schemes designed to help them have increased the cost of their homes.

Many stretch themselves to the limit and beyond, which might be just about okay all the while that interest rates are at historically low levels. But what will happen, in the future, when interest rates increase? This is alien territory, unimaginable, to generations of first-time buyers.

And then, by the cruelest of fates, the dream of home-ownership turns into a nightmare for many who have taken advantage of different government schemes that have helped them onto the housing ladder, with ‘Shared Ownership’ being one of the worst.  Every day we read of leaseholders having to pay £50,000, £70,000, even £100,000 to have dangerous cladding removed from their homes (see Shared Ownership – Promising the World: Charging the Earth). If, through a shared ownership scheme, you own just 10% of your home, you are liable for 100% of the cost of all maintenance, including the replacement of the cladding put on by those same house builders who have walked away with profits but no liabilities.

Home ownership is tantalising but before you bend down hoping to drink, think about my third and final Greek mythology character.  Apate was the personification of deceit. The Roman equivalent was Fraus, the origin of the word … ‘fraud’.  You may wish to draw some conclusions. I couldn’t possibly comment.

Brighton is in danger of getting a reputation for being a closed-minded, intolerant city

A year ago today (22nd June 2020) there was this letter in The Times from someone called Alan Hawkes: “Sir, There were several articles in Saturday’s comment section (June 20) with which I profoundly disagreed. Keep up the good work”.

In this age when merely questioning perceived orthodoxy can result in people losing their jobs, being no platformed and being ‘cancelled’, the sentiment in Alan Hawkes’ letter is most refreshing.

Brighton and Hove, in spite of its reputation for tolerance and inclusivity, can be the most close-minded and intolerant of places where people are hesitant to say what they actually believe for fear of being ‘silenced’. 

Bari Weiss was for a short while a columnist on the New York Times but resigned because of the growth of ‘cancel-culture’ of a growing number of journalists and others working for that paper. In her resignation letter she wrote: “A new consensus has emerged . . . that truth isn’t a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else.”

During the European referendum there was next to nobody on the left in Brighton who would admit that they were going to vote Leave. I was amongst the ‘next to nobody’. What shocked me was the reaction I received when I mentioned to friends and colleagues that I was merely considering a Leave vote. The self-righteous indignation was shocking. One or two asked me why, but generally I was met with reactions ranging from mild surprise to a few people refusing to talk to me about it.  “How does it feel getting into bed with Boris Johnson and Nigel Farrage?” I was asked. “About as distasteful as you getting into bed with David Cameron and George Osborn,” was my reply, adding, “but that isn’t a valid political argument.”

I was actually undecided about how to vote right up to the day of the referendum. I could have gone either way. I had long been persuaded by Tony Benn’s argument that the European Union was un-democratic and anti-socialist.  I would go further. I think the European Union as an institution is anti-democratic, corrupt and anti-socialist. I am an internationalist and believe in the importance of international institutions. If I believed that the EU could be reformed I would have voted Remain. But the Treaty of Lisbon makes that impossible.

I didn’t vote ‘Brexit’, nor do I wish to be associated with the xenophobia of Farrage or the incompetence of those who failed so miserably in negotiating Britain’s exit. I never believed the lies about the “oven-ready agreement”, £350 million a week for the NHS, or that trade deals would be the easiest thing to agree. By contrast, Project Fear and other claims of Remain, along with an almost delusional belief in all things EU were equally unconvincing, and are one reason why Labour lost, and will continue to lose, in former rock-solid Labour areas of the north.

Sometimes when I have mentioned that I voted Leave others have confided in me that they, too, had voted Leave but didn’t want others to know, such is the fear of being ostracised by the Brighton version of Bari Weiss’s ‘enlightened few’.

The period we are living through is characterised, in Brighton as much as anywhere, by intolerance, specifically an intolerance of original thinking and dissenting views. The ‘enlightened few’ need to realise that the silent majority isn’t listening and, if they are, are being alienated by your unreasonable certainty about all things.

Happy Alan Hawkes Day!

Government refuses to take action needed to prevent evictions and cuts discretionary housing payments

The government last week rejected a recommendation that it should develop a specific financial package to support tenants with rent arrears attributable to the pandemic. I have supported a call for a loan fund, as recommended by the Resolution Foundation and supported by the National Residential Landlord Association, which would assist in reducing homelessness preventing homelessness and an increase in rough sleeping.

The government justified its decision by saying that additional money was made available for Discretionary Housing Payments (DHP).

It has now been announced that the government is cutting this DHP funding by more than a fifth. DHP funding was increased from £139.5 million £180 million in 2020/21 amid the pandemic. It is now being cut back to £140 million in 2021/22, a reduction of 22% and lower than the DHP budget in 2017/18 or 2018/19.

How shortsighted. Government had a perfect opportunity to set up a loans facility that, in time, would be repaid but, no, decided not to act when it could.

At our Brighton Advice Centre we have recently been receiving, on average, about three enquiries a day from people who said that they might lose their home. Last week, following some publicity, we took well over 20 calls a day and staff are bracing themselves for a deluge of calls in the weeks ahead given that most tenants in arrears have yet to receive anything in writing.

If you are in arrears, speak to your landlord to explain your situation and tell them how and when you expect to be able to clear your arrears. The period of the eviction moratorium was not a ‘rent holiday’. Any arrears will still need to be paid and non-payment is a grounds for a landlord gaining possession of your home.

Act early, speak to your landlord, get advice.

Shared Ownership – Promising the World: Charging the Earth

Shared housing promotional material from one housing association – there was no reference to liabilities …

The cladding scandal exposed by the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed the fundamental flaw in home ownership ‘products’ introduced by successive governments and exploited by housing associations, not always to the benefit of their residents.

Leaseholders are facing bills of tens of thousands of pounds to replace flammable cladding, and until the cladding is replaced they cannot sell their homes which have become, financially, almost worthless.

The latest news that shared owners in Salford look set to have fire safety bills of £100,000 each passed on to them, sometimes more than they paid for their homes in the first place.

People who have bought a share of their home have been promised the world but now face being charged the earth. Shared owners, who own as little as half of their homes in some cases, are liable for 100% of the cost of remedial work. In the Salford case, where Irwell Valley Homes is the landlord, the cost is a staggering £97,000 per shared owner.

I wonder how many people who saw shared ownership as an opportunity to get on the home-owning ladder were fully aware of their liabilities. While it would have been in the small-print, I certainly didn’t see much reference to liabilities in glossy government and housing association promotional materials.

How are earth have we got into a position where the dream of home ownership has turned into a complete and utter nightmare. Those politicians who were, and continue to be, so keen on promoting policies such as this, should be hanging their heads in shame and should not be allowed anywhere near housing policy in the future.

Am I angry? Too bloody right I am.

A shortsighted policy on legal aid is now having health and financial consequences

A recent ITV investigation revealed that damp and mouldy homes impact people’s health. The programme suggests that poor housing costs the NHS an estimated £1.4bn a year.

In response to the ITV investigations, the Health Secretary Matt Hancock, has said that the Government will put housing at the heart of its post pandemic health strategy.

Three things spring to mind:

It is a shame that the government and the Ministry of Justice did not do an impact assessment when they removed all but the most serious disrepair from legal aid. This might have been identified earlier and money and lives could have been saved.

Secondly, Mr Hancock might want to have a word with his colleague, the Justice Secretary, Robert Buckland, to have ALL housing condition issues eligible for legal aid, and increase the financial eligibility criteria for legal aid so that more people (I think the government calls them “hard working people”) are eligible for legal aid. 

Thirdly, the government might want to give councils money so that they can increase their Environmental Health teams to proactively tackle the issue.