Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

6 February 2009

A Tale of Two Nations, or the grit is always greater on the other side

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. To the north of the border, the citizens were protected from the worst effects of the gathering storms. The provisions were as plentiful as an RBS senior executive’s bonuses – in good times and in bad. The difference was really not that great up there, in any case.

South of the border, by contrast, things were slowing down so much they were grinding to a halt. The climate had deteriorated to such an extent that workplaces and schools were shut down; and people were in any case unable to get to them, even if they were still employing the locals. There was nothing for it but to head into the streets and the parks, and fight it out.

And that’s only talking about the weather, the grit and the snowball fights! Yes, we’ve shown true Brit grit this week, even – or especially – where the grit has run out. Desperate folk have still battled their way into work (there is, after all, a lot of job insecurity about) and have ensured that the essential services kept running; apart from one or two refineries and power stations that we’ll talk about elsewhere, perhaps. Where necessary, selfless individuals have gone out into the bleak conditions on their own initiative to help pull cars out of snow drifts, and bring comfort and relief to stranded motorists. Whole communities have rallied round and shown their best side, providing emergency accommodation to those who were caught out unprepared. It’s the blitz spirit all over again; except this time, perhaps we should call it the ‘blizzard spirit’.

Where have these epic tales of dire emergency, valiant rescue and communal cheer been played out? Where indeed? The media, whose staff miraculously managed to make it into work this week (again, keeping those ‘essential’ services going), would have you believe it was in some place known as ‘Britain’ or ‘the UK’. ‘All across the UK’ they chimed, and ‘across the eastern parts of the UK’ they echoed. By my reckoning, though, almost all the places mentioned were in England, with a few incidental allusions to parts of Wales and Northern Ireland. But 95% of it has referred to England. Not one mention of Scotland until this evening; it appears that the poor climate may finally have caught up with them there, too, after all.

OK, not even I can try to lay blame for the relatively clement weather in Scotland on asymmetric devolution and the Barnett Formula, tempting though that might be in a bloody-minded sort of way. But I do blame these things for the way the weather was reported and, more importantly, for the way the media has dealt with the right-royal English farce of our being once again unprepared for wintry weather and running out of grit, of all things.

Yes, it’s an English farce, not a British one – just as the snow has fallen mostly on England and hardly at all on Scotland. Or rather, it’s a farce that has unfolded in England but been orchestrated by the (English) Department of Transport. I listened with not inconsiderable schadenfreude this evening to the report on BBC Radio Four’s PM programme on the too-little-too-late efforts of the “English Transport Secretary” to co-ordinate the distribution of the English counties’ dwindling reserves of gritting salt amongst themselves, with those that had more supplies sharing them out with the less well provisioned areas. Yes, they actually described the hapless minister as ‘English’, which I notice that the PM programme now does regularly when referring to a UK-government minister whose portfolio is limited to England, owing to devolution. Well done, BBC – you’ll be calling yourself the English BBC next!

What a fiasco that the English counties should be having to ration their gritting operations precisely as winter is winding up to its climax because the English government-that-isn’t-a-government-for-England has neglected to put in place proper processes and supplies to deal with all contingencies. Ah, rationing – that blitz spirit again!

But why, I asked myself, aren’t the English counties looking to their northern-British ‘compatriots’ who, we learnt earlier this week, have absolutely plentiful supplies of grit as well as armies of gritters on stand-by should they be needed. Needed in Scotland, that is. Oh yes, there’s no danger of them running out of grit up there! Why? Because they have a national government that is genuinely accountable to the people and who can, and would, be voted out if they endangered people’s lives and let everything grind to a halt because they neglected their duty to prepare for severe weather conditions. And because, thanks to the generosity of the English taxpayer, they have more of a budget for that sort of thing.

Well, after all, the Barnett Formula is about ‘need’, isn’t it; and, in respect to snow and ice, the needs of Scotland are undoubtedly greater, aren’t they? Usually, maybe; but not this time. So, given that the English counties are in danger of running out of grit, and their teams of gritter drivers were in danger of collapsing with exhaustion at their wheels, why didn’t we hear of generous blitz-spirited offers of grit and gritters from the Scottish counties to their English counterparts? Even if they wanted paying for them, which would have been a bit like paying for them twice over, quite frankly.

Well, it’s a different system, you see; and a different country. Why should one country whose government has taken the necessary precautions sacrifice its own precious resources to help out another whose government (or what passes as it) has neglected its duties? Why indeed? You can see their point.

But the media can’t, apparently. For the media, it was a time of extreme weather for all of Britain; and they made no reference to any idea of English counties borrowing or purchasing salt from the Scottish or Welsh ones that weren’t in danger of running out – though that fact was also not generally reported. No, the media was about as blind to the devolutionary aspects of the gritting crisis as were those English motorists battling their way to work and home through the drifting snow. Well, we don’t want the people of England becoming too aware of the superior provisions made by the respective governments of Scotland and Wales – backed by English taxpayer pounds – compared to the negligence towards England of the English UK government. Better to turn a blind eye to it.

Now that reminds me of someone! Idiot he isn’t; Scottish he most certainly is. And blind to the injustices his unelected English government heaps upon the English people like a snowstorm coming in from the continent of Europe, while the Scottish people yet enjoy good times at their expense.

Are we sure it wasn’t a snowball that blinded him in one eye: the one pointing towards England, that is? Well, at least I know who I’d like to chuck my snowballs at!

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1 February 2009

Care for women victims of violence: the real gap in provision the EHRC ignores

Trevor Philips, and the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) he chairs, were in the news again on Friday. Mr Philips was threatening to take legal action against local authorities that fail to convince the Commission that they have adequate plans to redress their insufficient, or totally absent, provision of services for women who have been victims of violence or sexual assault. If the EHRC’s figures are reliable – and they do seem to have been quite thorough in their research – then the absence of provision in some parts of ‘the country’ are indeed truly deplorable: nearly one in four local authorities in Britain with no specialised support services at all.

What the EHRC and the media reporting on Mr Philips’ declaration of intent yesterday did not emphasise, however, is that the gaps in funding and provision exist almost entirely in England and, to a lesser extent, Wales. Why is this? Because, as it says almost at the end of the EHRC’s press release: “In Scotland, the Government has extended provision through a national Violence Against Women fund for over five years”.

Why should ‘the Government’ create a ‘national Violence Against Women fund’ in Scotland while no such provision exists in England or Wales? Rhetorical question, of course; because this is not in fact referring to the UK government, as you could be forgiven for thinking, but the Scottish government. So the EHRC’s criticisms are not in fact directed at local authorities throughout the UK, because Scotland is performing significantly better. Why? Because in Scotland, they have a devolved government that has made the provision of care for women victims of violence a national priority. And it doubtless helps that Scotland has superior funding to back this up through the higher per-capita public spending guaranteed by the Barnett Formula.

The fact that the EHRC itself believes that the ability to deliver an adequate level of provision in this area results from its being set as a national priority is evident from what the EHRC’s press release goes on to say about the Scottish fund: “But this fund is now at risk since some of the work previously ringfenced has been lost because of delegation of responsibility for part of the fund to local authorities, a system which, as this year’s report shows, isn’t working for victims of violence in the rest of Britain”.

Well, yes; so if the problem in the ‘rest of Britain’ is the delegation of responsibility to local authorities, doesn’t this logically imply that the EHRC’s criticism and actions should be directed against the national English government, which should be taking ownership of the issue and driving the improvements – as has the national Scottish government – and not against the local authorities Mr Philips is now menacing with his clunking fist? But there’s a problem with that, of course: there is no national English government. Consequently, there is no government department, or combination of departments, specifically tasked with looking after the welfare and rights of English women victims of violence; no English government, answerable to the English electorate, that has the needs and situation of English women sufficiently at heart that it takes responsibility for ensuring that their human rights are looked after and that the local authorities of England do their job in this area. And one of the reasons why English local authorities are failing to a greater extent than their Scottish counterparts is that they receive less funding for the job.

But you wouldn’t know that from the EHRC press release, from the media interviews with Trevor Philips on Friday or from the wider media coverage. The funding and political inequalities between Scotland and England were never once mentioned as a possible factor in the variations in provision. Instead, the EHRC press release talks of a “postcode lottery” of inconsistent services throughout Britain – a phrase which is increasingly used nowadays to gloss over the primary discrepancy in public-service provision in the UK, which is that between England and the other UK nations.

In fact, the press release revealingly uses the phrase “regional postcode lottery”. This refers to a map of differential provision throughout Great Britain (the ‘map of gaps’) that has been drawn up by the EHRC in partnership with the charity grouping End Violence Against Women (EVAW), in which Great Britain has been divided up into 11 ‘regions’ – two of the ‘regions’ being Scotland and Wales. So it’s not a regional postcode lottery, as such; but a lottery of superior provision in the nations of Scotland and Wales compared with (the regions of) England.

This map is interactive; and you can indeed search for the provision in your local area by individual postcode. However, you can also search the availability of different types of care for women victims of violence across the whole of Great Britain, with colour coding indicating the number of individual services that are available in the local authorities concerned. In the generic category, ‘violence against women services’, all of the red-coded areas (no provision) are in England: no red in either Scotland or Wales.

If you click through all the sub-categories, the only ones where Scotland and Wales are predominantly coloured red are where England is mostly red, too; e.g. ‘services for black minority ethnic women’ or ‘specialist domestic violence courts’.

Indeed, the section of the map of gaps site entitled ‘Postcode Lottery’ gives the whole game away. It states “Over a quarter of local authorities in GB offer no specialised service at all”. Then, at the end of a set of bullet points on the key findings of the EHRC / EVAW research, it says: “All Local Authorities in Wales and Scotland have at least one service but 30% (109) in England have no service”. QED: the ‘quarter of local authorities in GB’ with no specialised service are the same local authorities as the 30% of English ones with no service, because every single authority in Scotland and Wales has at least one service. And that’s why there’s no red colouring on the ‘regional’ map for Scotland and Wales under the search term ‘violence against women services’.

This is the real news story and the real scandal of inadequate care to vulnerable women that the media totally failed to pick up on on Friday. I first spotted the story in the print version of the Guardian, where there was nothing to indicate that the local authorities with serious deficiencies were almost all located in England until some way into the report, where it referred to the EHRC report’s statistics about provision in England and Wales – Wales being included because it is lacking in certain types of care, such as rape crisis centres. The rat that I was already smelling positively stank me out when I watched the Channel 4 News report where, again, no mention was made of the fact that England was the only UK country where there were local authorities without any form of provision – despite the fact that they showed the ‘map of gaps’ (as above), with red bits only in England. And the Channel 4 report mentioned that the best-performing local authority in ‘Britain’ was Glasgow – surprise, surprise. Could the reason for this just perhaps be because it was a Scottish local authority, benefiting from superior funding and the political backing of the Scottish government, which appeared to be the reason why there were no red bits on the Scottish part of the map?

But, as I said above, the specifically English dimension of deficient provision simply wasn’t on the EHRC’s radar. Or perhaps, rather, it was being deliberately obfuscated in the usual way: by referring to everything as ‘Britain’ this and ‘the country’ that; ‘regional’ and postcode lotteries, not national. What interest would the EHRC have in obscuring the real economic and political issue here? After all, as an organisation, it’s supposed to have a UK-wide remit and should therefore be concerned to get to the bottom of any obvious apparent nationwide pattern of inequality and discrimination, no matter how politically awkward this might be.

Well, in theory, yes; but the UK government pays the EHRC’s wages and is its political master. In order to truly do justice to the inconsistencies in levels of provision across the different nations of the UK, the EHRC would have almost no alternative other than to point out that a major factor – perhaps the most fundamental one of all – is asymmetric devolution coupled with funding inequalities affecting the UK’s nations. They would have to emphasise that, whereas Scotland and Wales have national governments that have made the issue a priority, England is governed by the UK government that does not see it as part of its role to develop social policy specifically for England and to meet the needs of the English people as such. Hence, that government has delegated responsibility in the area of care for women victims of violence to local authorities – an approach which the EHRC itself says results in inadequate prioritisation and channelling of resources. Resources which are in any case more limited in England because of the funding disparities.

So the EHRC ought to be directing its fire against the UK government that is providing such inadequate and unequal care for the women of England – as it is for the people of England as a whole in so many other areas. But that would be too difficult, too likely to incur the wrath of its UK-government masters and threaten its ‘independence’. And so Trevor Philips’ imperious anger is directed at the English local authorities as an easier target: one which enables the blame that should be aimed at the UK government to be deflected, so the EHRC can be seen to be doing something while not getting to the real root of the problem – the fact that England itself is the victim of structural discrimination, resulting in lack of care towards its people’s needs and unequal treatment compared with the other UK nations.

Until the EHRC addresses this most egregious of violations of the principles of equality and human rights within the UK, it cannot have the credibility that it deserves as a defender of the rights of vulnerable people. In fact, rather than the EHRC threatening legal action against inadequately funded and politically unsupported English local authorities, it seems to me that the EHRC itself would be a suitable candidate for legal action. In this instance, at least, it is failing in its statutory duty to defend the principles of equality and human rights for all in the UK without discrimination. And English women are the losers as a result.

Email of protest sent to EHRC (info@equalityhumanrights.com) – feel free to borrow it or the arguments above if you want to write, too:

“Dear Madam or Sir,

“I am writing to express my dismay at the failure of the EHRC and the media to address one of the most fundamental aspects of the question of inadequate provision of care for women victims of violence, which was the subject of prominent media coverage last Friday.

“It was completely obvious to me – and therefore must have been evident to thousands of others – that the local authorities with no provision at all were all located in England; while Scotland was the best-performing ‘region’. This is, as the EHRC’s press release itself acknowledges, because the (Scottish) government has made the issue a priority. There is also the additional fact that a higher per-capita level of public funding is available to the Scottish government on this issue, as on many others, owing to the inequalities of the Barnett Formula.

“This aspect of the question was barely touched upon in the media coverage; nor is it addressed in the EHRC’s own material on your website. However, it is fundamental to any consideration of inequalities and discrimination in social-service provision in the UK. England is discriminated against in two respects here: 1) no national government to drive the issue, as in Scotland and Wales (a key factor in the superior provision in Scotland, according to the EHRC itself); and 2) inferior funding.

“Instead of bullying and threatening the English local authorities over this issue, the EHRC should direct its fire at the UK government that is failing the English people by not exercising its responsibility to set policy and priorities in England – as there is no England-specific government to do this equivalent to those in Scotland and Wales. In fact, the EHRC itself should perhaps be the object of legal action, as it is failing to defend the people of England against the political and financial discrimination of which it is a victim at the hands of the UK government and as a result of asymmetric devolution. And, as inadequate provision of care for vulnerable women is a direct consequence of this structural discrimination, the EHRC as much as English local authorities are to blame for the present deficiencies so long as you persist in not calling the UK government to account.”

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