Category Archives: Women

Stella Creasy’s proposal and its significance for the entire UK

The decisive victory of the campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution of Ireland – which banned abortion unless necessary to save the life of the pregnant woman – has had a seismic impact in the UK. The 1967 Abortion Act, which made abortion up to 28 (later 24) weeks’ gestation legal in Britain was never extended to Northern Ireland, meaning that in order to access abortion, women must make long and arduous journeys to Britain. The Irish referendum result provoked immediate calls for reform north of the border, with campaigners’ rallying cry now being ‘the North is next.’

Should there be an abortion referendum in Northern Ireland?

While some commentators have suggested that there could be an equivalent referendum on abortion in Northern Ireland, this is not necessary. In the Republic of Ireland, a referendum is required in order to alter the Constitution. There is no such requirement in order to legalise abortion in Northern Ireland, which is still governed by abortion laws created at Westminster in the 19th century. And not only isn’t a referendum needed, it is also not wanted by many abortion rights campaigners – they argue that human rights should not be subject to public mood.

Calls for action at Westminster are therefore growing louder. These were hashed out in an emergency debate on 5 June, secured by Labour MP Stella Creasy and a cross-party group of mostly female MPs. In the debate, Creasy presented abortion access as a human rights issue, noting the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women’s condemnation of the UK for criminalising abortion in Northern Ireland.

Stella Creasy’s proposal

Creasy and her allies will now push to amend the UK government’s forthcoming domestic abuse bill to allow reform in Northern Ireland. Specifically, they call for the repeal of sections 58 and 59 of the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, which criminalise the procurement of ‘any poison or other noxious thing’ or the use of ‘any instrument’ with the intent of inducing abortion. These reforms would not impose specific legislation on Northern Ireland, but rather would prompt Stormont to create its own legislative framework for regulating abortion.

The incredible thing about Creasy’s proposal is that it would not simply extend the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland, but bring about the wider decriminalisation of abortion across Britain. The contested sections of the Offences Against the Person Act in fact also apply to England and Wales (abortion has been a devolved issue in Scotland since 2016). The 1967 Abortion Act did not undo this criminalisation, but rather provided exemptions in certain circumstances, usually requiring the agreement of two doctors that the pregnancy poses a risk of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman. If the relevant sections of the Offences Against the Person Act are repealed, abortion in later stages of pregnancy would still be illegal, due to the Infant Life (Preservation) Act of 1929 which criminalises abortion of ‘a child capable of being born alive’.

In her opening speech, Creasy contended that extending the Abortion Act to Northern Ireland would not be adequate. The Act, Creasy argued, represents ‘paternalism that says women are not to be trusted to make choices about their bodies’. The fact that the Act does not grant a legal right to access abortion, but places restrictions on how and why an abortion can be carried out, causes problems. The need to obtain two doctors’ permission places unnecessary delays on the process of accessing abortion, and also restricts the ability of clinics to provide nurse- or midwife-led care. The requirement for medical oversight in the provision of early medical abortions can result in women miscarrying on their way home from the clinic instead of having the option to delay the process until they are in the privacy and comfort of their own home.

Reformists therefore want to see change not only in Northern Ireland, but also around the UK. The current campaign builds on a bill introduced by Diana Johnson MP in 2017, which also aimed to decriminalise abortion in England and Wales. This bill would also have repealed sections 58 and 59 of  the Offences Against the Person Act. It passed its first reading by 172 votes to 142. As an item of backbench legislation, the bill was unlikely to progress further, but it was a significant gauge of parliamentary opinion.

Just how much do these developments mean?

And yet, these demands would have been unthinkable until recently. Outside of Parliament, campaigners have been calling for decriminalisation for some time. But within Parliament, the mood has been different. When I was researching for my PhD thesis between 2010 and 2014, MPs – however pro-choice they might be in private – were reticent to call for such a significant reform. Those I interviewed suggested that the parliamentary ‘climate’ was wrong for reform and spoke of the need to defend the Abortion Act. Inadequate as it may be, they argued, it is at least reasonably workable. They emphasised the potential dangers of opening the Act up for debate.

What Creasy’s emergency debate represents, then, is not just a step forward for reproductive rights in Northern Ireland. It is broader than that: it means that MPs now feel able to push for liberalisation rather than defend the status quo. It also means that the campaign for abortion rights in Northern Ireland is becoming more fundamentally linked with reproductive rights campaigns in Britain as the roots of criminalisation in Westminster law-making are more fully recognised.

Achieving reform will not be easy, of course. The current UK government is reticent to upset the staunchly anti-abortion DUP, with some commentators predicting that this issue could even ‘topple’ Theresa May. Despite the reformists’ argument that to repeal the Offences Against the Person Act would not impose legislation on Stormont, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley, cautioned in the debate against ‘disenfranchising’ Northern Irish citizens. Theresa May has privately told MPs that she believes that change is impossible. But there are signs of divisions within the Conservative Party, with the Minister for Women and Equalities, Penny Mordaunt, tweeting that if Northern Ireland doesn’t act, ‘we will’.

First published on the British Politics and Policy blog

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Almost a million adults have currently given up paid work to care for friends and relatives. Most of these unpaid carers are women and in large part they are exiting the labour market because social care provision is inadequate. Meanwhile, life for the women who are paid to provide social care has become much harder. As social care provision has been eroded, they have faced a regressive, sexist, and systematic subordination of their interests as women, and because they are women.

The inadequacy of equal pay law

In 1997, most care workers were employed by local authorities and received an employer-funded pension, pay when sick, and the security of 37 hours a week of regular work. However, female care workers were underpaid in relation to men in comparable work. State employers promised that within a decade they would eliminate sexist wages and provide the care workforce with equal pay. This simply didn’t happen. Instead, sexism in wage-setting was effectively put on steroids through privatisation: the care workforce of today is employed in jobs which carry less than half the financial value of the jobs that care workers occupied 20 years ago. A systematic degradation has also been made possible by the utter inadequacy of equal pay law. Evidently, the Equal Pay Act 1970, and provisions in the Equality Act 2010 which replaced it, are not fit for purpose.

Equal pay law was supposed to ensure that the blight of sexism in pay-setting was eradicated. Not so for care workers. Where women do not work in close proximity to men, equal pay law offers very little and prevents women from comparing their wages to those of men who do not work for the same employer. It is a widespread misunderstanding that equal pay law protects the wages of women: it does not. Rather, the right to equal pay prevents male wages from being undercut. Inadequacies in equal pay law perpetuate the historic subordination of women in low-waged work, prevent care workers from achieving economic independence, and exemplify the economic invisibility of skills and abilities which are thought to arise ‘naturally’ in women.

The inadequacy of minimum wage law

The financial crisis of 2007/2008 heralded UK labour market changes in which care work became the largest source of low-waged work for women. The real value of the national minimum wage fell each year until 2014. For more than a decade, politicians and policy-makers were aware of minimum wage law being flouted in the social care industry. Nothing was done despite voluminous evidence that huge numbers of care workers were paid unlawfully low wages.

In various forms, non-compliance with national minimum wage law has continued even though the state is the main customer as well as the regulatory overseer of the social care industry. When the social care minimum wage scandal of 2017 highlighted that thousands of care workers were paid nothing more than pocket-money to ensure the overnight well-being of vulnerable adults, employers were outraged that they should have to pay care workers what was legally owed. The government’s initial response was to suspend the full enforcement of minimum wage law in the social care sector; months later, it implemented an industry-specific exception scheme in which care workers will not receive all the wages to which they are entitled until March 2019 and employers will avoid penalty fines.

The inadequacy of statutory pay protection

Yet a lack of political interest in enforcement has not been the only minimum wage issue to blight care workers’ earnings. Care workers are failed by the current right to a minimum wage where their work is not recognised as ‘work’ for the purposes of statutory pay protection. Regulations exempt the work of co-habiting family members paid as care workers via direct payments from minimum wage protection. Regulations also exempt the work of care workers who live-in and are treated ‘like family’ by their employers from minimum wage protection. In case law, the work of carers who are contractually required to remain on-site during lengthy shifts is not automatically recognised as ‘work’. Judges have devised special tests to apply when care workers bring minimum wage claims. Unlike the situation facing other workgroups, it is not enough for care workers to simply be present because their contract requires it: they must additionally show they are busy, needed, working alone or carrying special responsibility for others.

The engrained culture of non-payment

The National Minimum Wage Act 1998 and its accompanying regulations were supposed to communicate the universal value of paid work but do not require employers to pay for all the hours they require a worker to work. The scheme merely calculates a minimum wage total to be met or exceeded when pay is averaged across all hours worked. Although the right to a minimum wage was supposed to prevent exploitation, it has become standard industry practice for care workers to work for free during increasingly large parts of each working day. For example, in 2014, homecare employers calculated that workers were unpaid for an average of 19% of their working time due to non-payment of travel time between clients. On top of this, they were routinely unpaid for time spent training, waiting for ambulances or other healthcare professionals, time spent waiting for co-workers to help them lift heavy clients, time spent in supervision meetings with management – and the list goes on. An engrained culture of non-payment in the care industry has been made possible by the inadequacy of UK minimum wage law.

Why all this matters

Hands-on care work is the UK’s most highly female-segregated occupation. Traditionally, women are expected to provide care for free within families and they continue to provide the vast majority of unpaid work at home. A sex-based ideology about women’s subservience to the needs of others still circulates in the contemporary labour market, and minimum wage law does not do enough to assert the value of care work.

There are two million workers in adult social care, the vast majority of them women. If we continue to tolerate care workers being employed to work without pay, the future of care work will be based on sexist expectations that care work should be done for free. Unless we stand up and demand that carers’ skills attract decent economic reward, the future of social care will be based on the idea that caring skills are ‘natural’ for women and don’t have to be paid for. Until the wages of care workers are free from sexist devaluation, and until the work of care workers is fully recognised, the labour of all women is devalued.

First published on the British Politics and Policy blog

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A group of individuals in Northern Irish politics obstructs change

In a matter of months, the Republic of Ireland will hold a referendum on repealing the eighth amendment of the constitution and paving the way for legal abortion for the first time in the country. With both the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, and the leader of the opposition, Micheál Martin, declaring that they will campaign for repeal, and with the electorate broadly supportive of the move, change looks likely. Following only three years on from the country’s historic same sex marriage referendum, Ireland appears to be moving from one of the more socially conservative countries in western Europe to one which is signalling a new, liberal dawn.

By contrast, Northern Ireland has not seen similar sea changes. Same sex marriage remains illegal and the 1967 Abortion Act, which legislates for the procedure in England, Scotland, and Wales does not apply. Abortion is only allowed in a very small number of cases in Northern Ireland, and is not automatically legal in instances of rape, incest, or fatal foetal abnormality. Although Northern Irish women can now access abortions on the NHS in England, thanks to Stella Creasy’s amendment to the Queen’s speech, this does nothing to change the strict legal situation in Northern Ireland, nor does it help with the financial costs of travelling for the procedure.

The absence of policy movement in either of these areas is often chalked up to Northern Ireland’s difference, especially the strength of Christianity (both Protestant and Catholic) within its population. Indeed, in the wake of the DUP confidence and supply arrangement with Theresa May’s government, much was made of the DUP’s social conservatism in the British press and Northern Ireland’s variance from the rest of the UK.

Yet the restrictive situation in Northern Ireland can equally be explained through the politics and institutions of the region. Abortion in particular has long been a political football in Northern Irish politics following devolution. As early as 2000, the Assembly debated the motion that it was ‘opposed to the extension of the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland’, despite the fact that there was no attempt from Stormont or Westminster to do so. Following a 2004 ruling, the Department of Health at Stormont was ordered to produce guidance for medical professionals outlining the specific circumstances in which termination of pregnancy was legal. It took until 2016 for this guidance to be officially released, the intervening years seeing a period of legal and political blockades thrown at them. In 2012, a Marie Stopes clinic opened in central Belfast, operating under the strict legal parameters that Northern Ireland allows for, and has excited much political debate and energy at Stormont in the years since.

For much of Northern Ireland’s devolved period therefore, abortion has been a political stumbling block. In particular, a handful of key individuals have driven this pattern of obfuscation and resistance. Jim Wells, who stepped down as Stormont Health Minister in 2015 following comments he made about homosexual parenting, has been a key critic of any attempts to change abortion law, and instigated a debate on the issue in Stormont in 2000. In the mid-2000s, Iris Robinson lead the way in trying to ensure that proposed guidelines around abortion were obstructed via the Assembly. In 2013, Paul Girvan DUP MLA and Alban Maginness SDLP MLA attempted to outlaw any private abortion providers in Northern Ireland which would have closed down the newly opened Marie Stopes clinic in central Belfast.  These individuals have come from very different political parties and from across the ethno-national divide. Although mostly men, this largely reflects the male-dominated make-up of the Northern Irish Assembly.

Feminist political scientists have long employed the concept of ‘critical actors’ to refer to key individuals who instigate positive change within political institutions. Stella Creasy’s amendment, discussed above, is one such example of an individual politician working to enact huge change. Using the example of Northern Irish abortion politics following devolution, I argue for an understanding of conservative critical actors as well as progressive critical actors.

Over a period of years, movement on abortion has been stalled, not just by the male-dominated nature of the political institution, nor by party policy on the issue, but also, as detailed above, by a key group of individuals in Northern Irish politics. When considering why some policies are difficult to change, or even to implement at all, consideration must be given to the actions of individual members of political institutions. The role that they can play in encouraging or obstructing policy change can be as important as the role of parties, formal rules or the nature of political institutions themselves. This has been the case in Northern Ireland, where a small number of critical actors have obstructed change on abortion for many years.

Attempts to change abortion policy at the moment are also not helped by the fact that Northern Ireland is facing one of its most challenging political periods in decades. With the Assembly suspended now for over a year, and talks to reinstate it failing in February, the hope for reform any time soon appears bleak. Should direct rule occur, Westminster will have the power to enact change on abortion in the region. With reform so long stymied in Belfast, the transfer of powers to London may open the door for abortion change in Northern Ireland.

First published on the British Politics and Policy blog

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The CCG have decided to restrict discussion on the future of the hospital to just one option, not the four explicitly
promised.

The North of England Clinical senate has advised on this single option. The North of England Clinical senate is not a neutral body but one that works within the Government plans for the NHS, which includes privatisation and shrinking services. It is not a neutral body.

  • The move will be massively costly, over £10 million. This at a time the Royal College of Nursing says nursing staff shortages are compromising patient care, staffing is so tight that patients can be left to die alone. The removal of bursaries is hitting recruitment.
  • Services across the country are being restricted.
  • The actual problems at the Liverpool Women’s Hospital cannot wait the 5 years or so a new building might take, The neonatal unit needs to expand and update, the blood services (not just at LWH) and imaging need to be improved, now.
  • Maternity care facilities are being cut across the country and the pernicious Maternity Review is being
    implemented. This area is a maternity vanguard area. They are on record as saying they want women to give
    birth at home, not in a hospital. See our facebook for the video
  • The US model of care to which the NHS moving, does not cater well for maternity. Texas has the highest
    maternal mortality rates in the developed world
  • The NHS in the north of England (covered by the NHS Senate,that penned,the report) also said,
    Women in labour can safely travel four hours without risk to their baby.
  • Many hospitals are on more than one site, including both the Liverpool Royal and Arrowe Park, yet it is said to be too dangerous for the Liverpool Women’s to be a mile away from an acute hospital? One mile away is dangerous, we are told, yet women giving birth at home could be many miles away.
  • At Free Standing midwife units, (unlike the alongside midwife led unit at our hospital) one in four women need to be transferred to hospital. On that basis, this must also be dangerous. Yet four hours travel in labour is safe?
  • Most of the cost problems in Liverpool Women’s hospital come from the internal structures and systems of
    the internal market in the NHS.
  • The Maternity Vanguard are intent on setting up a “pop up” maternity unit to “explore women’s choices”. No mention of the choices tens of thousands of women have indicated in our petition. Choosing our choices
    for us it seems.
  • The NHS needs to be fully funded with more beds doctors and nurses and midwives and related professions.
  • The STPs and accountable care organisations are a risk to the whole NHS, free at the point of need,  publicly provided and a universal service. Merseyside and Cheshire STP is one of the largest.
  • PFI hospital building has wasted billions of pounds of taxpayer money and not one is fire safe. The private companies get the fees and profits and guess who pays to make these brand new hospitals fire safe?
  • Staff still work under the pay cap and many cannot make ends meet. What does Hunt the health secretary offer? An app to let you do more shifts.
  • Not one mention of the major problems of traffic pollution at the proposed site which especially damages babies in the womb and new borns. The site proposed will include the Cancer centre and a life sciences commercial building, bringing in still more traffic. Can we have some joined up thinking please?

How you can be involved?

Invite our campaign to meet a group of your friends or your organisation. Ask us to your union meeting. Come to a campaign meeting. Leaflet your street.

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The historic 1967 Abortion Act is 50 years old this month, yet this fundamental part of women’s health care continues to be a fiercely contested issue. There are still politicians who want to turn back the clock and win support for complete opposition to all abortions in any circumstances. Tory MP Jacob Rees Mogg declared this as his view only last month, although his position was swiftly undermined by revelations that he profits from shares in a pharmaceutical company that produces abortion pills.

Rees Mogg’s desire to deny women any rights to legal abortion is a minority one in Britain. Here a clear majority, 70 percent in the most recent British Attitudes Survey, support a woman’s right to choose. But there is no room for complacency when women in one part of the UK, Northern Ireland, have no right to abortion unless they travel to Britain. The 1967 Act was never extended to Northern Ireland and thousands of women needing an abortion have had to cross the Irish Sea to access a legal termination. As an added injustice, until recently they also had to pay for it. This was only overturned in June after the snap general election when the Tories courted the anti abortion Democratic Unionist Party for support to win the Queens Speech. The ensuing outcry forced Theresa May to ditch the requirement for women from Northern Ireland to pay for terminations.

Today the increasing vocal pro-choice side is highlighting the plight of women living in countries where abortion is banned, including on both sides of the Irish border. In the Republic of Ireland more than 40,000 people poured through the streets of Dublin on Saturday for the sixth annual March for Choice to demand a repeal of the eighth amendment to Ireland’s constitution. This amendment deems the rights of an embryo equal to those of the woman carrying it, at any stage of the pregnancy. This law against abortion doesn’t stop abortions happening, it simply exports them. Thousands of women are forced to travel to England to enable them to take control their own fertility. Over 200,000 women have travelled to Britain from Ireland to have an abortion since the 8th amendment was enacted in 1983.

After last year’s March for Choice, the Irish government handed the issue to a Citizens’ Assembly to examine and debate. The Assembly came out with a clear call for a change in the law, showing just how much attitudes are changing in Ireland. Last week the government finally announced it would hold a referendum on the question in 2018. This provides opportunity to overturn more than a century of anti-abortion legislation in the country, which up to 2013 included the 1861 Offences Against the Person act. This archaic law is still in place in Britain and it makes having or carrying out an abortion a criminal act punishable by life imprisonment. The 1967 Abortion Act did not replace this act, instead it created exceptions to allow legal abortions when certain conditions are fulfilled.

Even 50 years ago these conditions were restrictive, now when the majority of abortions are carried out by taking pills they are an oppressive anachronism. The website Women on Web reported that they receive requests from women living in Britain for abortion pills because access to abortion services is limited by the requirements of the law. The reasons women gave for contacting the website included the distance from a clinic providing abortion care, long waiting times, childcare responsibilities and the difficulty of getting time off work. But any woman in Britain who uses pills bought online potentially risks a prison sentence because of the strict controls over how abortion services are provided.

This is a situation that cannot hold. The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists joined the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Midwives last week in calling for abortion in Britain to finally be removed from criminal law and be treated as simply a medical issue.

Repressive laws and attitudes to women’s rights to control their own bodies are being challenged across the globe. While online access to sites such as Women on Web saves lives, millions have no access even to this service. The World Health Organisation estimates that 25 million abortions globally are unsafe, that’s almost a half of all terminations.

In Britain the fight is on to defend the rights won by past generations but to also extend those rights to allow genuine reproductive choices. Whatever the utterances of anti abortion campaigners such as Rees Mogg, pro-choice activists are on the march and determined to win the long-running abortion wars.

First published on the Policy Press blog

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We call for protection of women’s rights:

  • Guaranteeing family friendly employment terms and conditions affecting morale, recruitment retention of women including Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender people.
  • Fertility control In Vitro Fertilisation, contraception and abortion access: thus protecting women’s mental health, finances and family stability
  • Safe childbirth for every woman. Risk assessment for home births (evidence of deaths increasing)
  • Reverse the outsourcing of maternity services.
  • Increased support for carers, to improve health and protect people from poverty.
  • Integrate the care system with the National Health Service to be free at the point of use, paid for by taxation.
  • Employ nurses in care homes and improve training and terms for care workers.

Equality:

We call for protection of women’s rights with respect to equality which addresses:

  • the long-term impact of domestic abuse, in the widest context, on health
  • the impact of gynaecological intervention that harms women internally e.g. mesh implants and externally e.g. Female Genital Mutilation.
  • the impact of caring on mothers of children who have specific and higher needs over their lifetime
  • the effect on women refugees and European Union migrants of the new United Kingdom Comprehensive Sickness Insurance regulations involving healthcare charging
  • the quality of and accessibility to women’s mental health services, including primary post-partum treatments.

This is to be presented to the Labour Party Women’s Conference 2017

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