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Now Is The Spring Of Our Discontent

30 Mar

Iain "Ratbag" Duncan SmithSo, it’s Easter. Not that you’d know it, of course, because it’s been snowing for about two weeks and as of today some of the UK’s biggest supermarkets were reporting that they had run out of Easter Eggs. It’s also the start of Spring; the clocks have gone forward, and just about the worst thing that some of us can complain about are the fact that we’ve lost an hours sleep.

But from Monday, some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the country are set to lose money and even their homes, as some of their vital benefits are cut. The “Bedroom Tax” as it as come to be known, means that people in social housing with empty bedrooms will have their housing benefit cut and could lose at least £14 a week, or £728 a year. Those with one spare bedroom will have their housing benefit cut by 14%, and those with two or more spare bedrooms will see their benefits cut by 25%. These drastic cuts are supposed to encourage people to move to much smaller properties, and save the government £480 million a year in housing benefit, according to David Cameron. In fact, the only good news to come out of this mess is the news that Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary and outright hypocrite, was called a “ratbag” by a protester in Edinburgh last week.

There are many problems with the Bedroom Tax or “Spare Room Subsidy” as the coalition government call it. Across the UK there is a shortage of social housing, specifically properties with one bedroom. This means that thousands of single people are already living in homes with more than one bedroom, because that’s all the council could give them. In fact, the National Housing Federation have stated that some 180,000 households are currently “under occupying two bedroom homes” in England. In Scotland, the Bedroom Tax is set to cost council and housing association tenants on housing benefit £5.3 million a year, and up to 95,000 people across the country will be affected by the new tax.

But this isn’t the only new cut to be enforced in April; the government have reformed the council tax system, the very safeguard that helps people who cannot afford to pay their council tax which is to be cut by 10%. The coalition government is also to transfer responsibility for the new system to local councils, who must decide whether to maintain the current levels of support, make cuts to support. Because of this 150,000 low-income households will have to pay £300 more a year.

And that’s not all. The coalition government have created a £500 a week  – that’s £26,000 a year – cap on benefits paid to an out of work family can claim in a year. This cap will be introduced in London from April and then enforced nationwide from September. The Children’s Society have warned that this could lead to 80,000 children being made homeless as their families are priced out of renting homes in the private sector. There’s also the 1% benefit cap increase, which is set to last until at least 2015/16, means that benefits will not rise with inflation. This means that those people receiving working-age benefits and working tax credits will suffer a 4% loss in their benefits, or to better illustrate it, 2.5 million households without someone in work will lose an average of £215 per year in 2015/16 and households with someone in work will lose an average of £165. For the countries poorest, and most vulnerable, including disabled people, this will mean that they will have to choose between heating their home and feeding themselves.

Elsewhere, Britain’s millionaires will receive a 5% decrease in their income tax. From the 6th of April the 1.5% of the population that make £150,000 a year will pay 45% tax on their income, instead of 50% meaning the 13,000 millionaires in the country will save an average of £100,769 a year.

Meanwhile the rising cost of living has seen hundreds of thousands of people turning to food banks across the country, as they can no longer afford to put food on the table. In the past year, the Trussell Trust, which operates the UK’s network of food banks, sent out 300,000 food parcels in the last year; double the figure they sent out the year before. There are more than 325 food banks in the UK.

Unsurprisingly, and thankfully, these changes which tax the poor and benefit the rich have been met with widespread condemnation. This weekend thousands of people protested against the bedroom tax, with 2,500 people turning up at a rally in Glasgow. Yet, in the face of universal criticism, and in the middle of one of the biggest celebrations in the Christian calendar, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey attacked the coalition government, not for their ongoing persecution of the poorest people in society, but for their “persecution” of the “Christian minority” because of the coalition government’s support of equal marriage.

Yes, a major figure in a religion which seemingly promotes supporting the vulnerable, the sick and the *poor used his position to protest the treatment of other Christians, and not his fellow-man, who has, one can argue faced a lot more persecution of late, and could do with a bit of a hand.

If this is Spring, if this is what is happening to the UK’s most vulnerable right now, with the weather and the economic forecast this bleak, then this Winter will be the UK’s darkest yet.

Don’t let the ratbags win.

*There are many. many quotes in the Bible about helping the poor, such as:

Deuteronomy 15:11

“There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be open handed toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land”

Psalm 82:3-4

“Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked”

Proverbs 3:27-28

“Do not withhold good from those who deserve it, when it is in your power to act. Do not say to your neighbour, “Come back later; I’ll give it tomorrow” — when you now have it with you.”

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Why Does the Government Hate Women?

6 Oct

In the same week that the Minister for Women, Maria Miller announced that she would back a reduction in the abortion limit from 24 to 20 weeks, the health secretary, Jeremy Hunt has announced that he backs the reduction of the limit further, to just 12 weeks.

Miller’s support of lowering the abortion limit from the current 24 weeks to 20 weeks, is not a decision backed by medical science, or the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, which announced in 2009 that it had found no medical evidence to justify such a cut. Similarly, Hunt’s support for a 12 week limit on abortions, though a decision he says he came to “after studying the evidence”, although he hasn’t yet cited the evidence for this decision. He has also denied that his faith has been one of the driving forces for his decision.

But just as Miller’s support for a 20 week limit has been met with derision, so has Hunt’s desire to cut the limit to 12 weeks, a decision slammed by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, who have criticised Hunt’s stance on abortion. Speaking to The Times their spokesperson Kate Guthrie said:

“The politicisation of women’s health is absolutely shocking. Politicians talk about putting patients at the centre, which is quite right.

How is the woman at the centre of her healthcare with something like this?

If everybody had to have abortions by 12 weeks, my worry would be that women would be rushed into making decisions: ‘I have to have an abortion now or I can’t have one.’

That’s an absolute shocker. You will absolutely create mental health problems if you start dragooning women into making decisions before they have to.”

Abortion is a sensitive issue; it is a difficult issue for some people, but above all else, it is an issue that should concern the women who are experiencing a surprise pregnancy. Women deserve the right to have autonomy over their own bodies, we are entitled to make the decision to end or continue a pregnancy if that is what we want to do. The decision to have an abortion is a difficult one, and is influenced by many factors, not least by the existing time limits.

Let me be frank, Miller and Hunt’s desire to lower the abortion limit will not mean fewer abortions will be carried out. It will mean that women that rely on the NHS will be forced to make a decision with very little time to spare, while women with money will be able to afford to access an abortion in other countries with a higher time limit. Those women without the means to pay for their own abortion, or ability to travel to another country to have one will be left with fewer options and a lot of desperation and worry. Desperation will cause women who want to end their pregnancy to turn to unlicensed backstreet abortion which led to hundreds, if not thousands of women contracting serious illnesses, becoming infertile or dying from their injuries. The amount of women who became ill or died following an illegal abortion before 1967 cannot be verified, but it is estimated that 47,000 women have died because of unsafe abortion. Is this what we want for women in the UK?

Unwanted pregnancy rates need to be targeted by the government, but not by reducing the abortion time limit. Improving access to contraception would help deal with the issue. This has been proven time and time again by studies, with the most recent one, carried out by Washington University in St Louis, concluding that better access to contraception means fewer abortions. In addition, improving pre-natal testing for genetic abnormalities, would help make parents more aware of any issues with a pregnancy well in advance of the 24 week mark. As would working to stop end any delays that some women considering abortion may face.

So, Miller, you’re Minister for Women, start acting like you’re on our side; stop describing yourself as “a very modern feminist” and trust women to make the right decisions about our own bodies and futures. As for Hunt, the Health Secretary should recognise that lowering the abortion limit will not mean fewer abortions, it will mean fewer documented abortions and more women putting their lives at risk in order to end a pregnancy that they either cannot or will not continue with due to choice, or the health of the foetus. Late abortion is accounts for a very small percentage of abortions in the UK, less than 2% of the 200,000 abortions carried out in England and Wales in 2011, were late-term abortions.

If Hunt and Miller were really interested in stopping unwanted pregnancies, they would start by looking at access to contraceptives and improving sex education, not by punishing women who have an unexpected or non-viable pregnancy. This is the latest step in the Conservative’s war on women, and we must fight to make sure that all women have access to safe and legal abortion – should they need or want one.

Six Tips for the Young Arts Journalist

30 Sep

Image courtesy of NS Newsflash, under a Creative Commons Licence

So, you want to be an arts journalist. You want to write about the arts, interview influential people and perhaps even travel the world in search of all things culture-related. So, before you go out into the world, and start trying to make a name for yourself as a promising new writer, here are a few things that you need to know. I know that some of them sound very obvious to most of us, but believe me, some people need to be told these things.

Leave Your Ego At The Door

Even if you’ve studied journalism in some form already, had work experience at a paper, or even, managed the holy grail and got some money for your writing, your ego can and will be your downfall. Writing is obviously a very useful talent to have in the industry, but listening and having respect for others is too.

This means that when your editor asks you for something, you do it.

This means that if you attend a show, gig or screening, you are a representative of your publication, you need to be on your best behaviour.

This also means that you should be polite to people you deal with, such as press officers PRs, editors and other writers. Being rude will give you a bad reputation, and also make people less likely to want to work with you.

Be Persistent

In journalism, persistence is key. Editors are very, very busy people; our inboxes fill up quickly with emails, and so if you’ve emailed someone looking for work, or pitching a piece, don’t be afraid to send them a follow-up email. The same goes for PRs and press officers; if you’re waiting on a response to a ticket request, get back in touch and ask for confirmation.

It once took me 17 emails and a phone call to arrange and confirm an email with a director, so if you don’t receive a response to your initial email, keep trying.

Listen to Feedback

Some editors will give you feedback on your work, others will not. If you are lucky enough to receive feedback on your copy, then listen to it. As an editor, having a writer that refuses to listen to feedback about their work, and who continues to make the same errors over and over again, is extremely frustrating.

Editors don’t have the time to keep correcting the same errors in a writer’s copy time and time again; they want writers that will listen to feedback.

Be Reliable

Like persistence, reliability is another skill that any young journalist should have. This means turning to shows/gigs/events/interviews on time, and then submitting copy by the deadline.

Turning up to something that you are meant to cover late, or indeed, failing to turn up at all destroys any trust your editor may have in you. Similarly, attending an event and then not submitting copy will blacklist you from that publication, and perhaps others.

Editors like to talk to one another, and if you behave poorly for one editor, others will hear about it, trust me.

Pay Attention to the Word Count

Word counts exist for a reason, and for print publications, they exist in order to make sure that the piece will fit into its allocated space without messing up the entire page its set to be printed on.

Although online journalism is obviously different to print, word counts are just as important for online publications as well. This means that you stick to the word count, so if an editor as for a 300 word review, the review needs to be 300 words, not 200, and most certainly not 600.

Speaking from an editor’s perspective, receiving an email that begins with the words “I know it’s over the word count but…” is infuriating. Learn how to self-edit, it’s a skill that will never leave you once you’ve mastered it. So don’t be lazy, stick to the word count.

Never, Ever Plagiarise 

Plagiarism is another word for ripping off or copying other people’s work. Plagiarism, while not illegal, is highly immoral and a very serious problem in journalism. Being caught plagiarising can and will end your career as a journalist, as no editor or publication will work with any journalist who is caught passing off other people’s work as their own.

It’s a despicable and unforgivable thing to do, and there is never any excuse for it. Do yourself a favour, and never let yourself and your publication down by doing it – ignorance is not an excuse.

Again, I realise I may be preaching to the converted here, but spreading the word about these problems will help tackle the common issues that young journalists and their editors will face.

Cameron’s Cabinet Reshuffle – It’s Not For Girls

5 Sep

Can you spot the female MPs?

It began after midnight, with Baroness Warsi’s now-infamous 2am tweet, where she broke the news that she was no longer the Conservative party’s co-chairman. Warsi, who was the first female Muslim MP, was quickly joined by Cheryl Gillan, who announced she had been removed from her post as Welsh Secretary. And so began the cabinet reshuffle that by the end of the day would see Cameron’s government lose 60% of its female MPs, including Warsi, who was their only ethnic minority MP, making this cabinet the most white, male and least culturally diverse one possible, highlighting the Conservative’s failure to modernise their own party.

In the cold, clear light of morning, more departures were announced, albeit, not always by Twitter, as the departures also included Kenneth Clarke, the Justice Secretary, or the one that made those ignorant comments about ‘serious rape’ last year, although he is to remain in the government.

However, perhaps the most surprising change was David Cameron’s decision to appoint Jeremy Hunt as the new Health Secretary, who replaces the much-maligned Andrew Lansley. While Lansley is set to become the Leader of the Commons, Hunt, the MP whose ties to the Murdoch media empire, and a man incapable of ringing a bell without injuring someone, is now in charge of the nation’s health.

Let me be frank, there are a number of reasons why the former Secretary of State for Culture, the Olympics, Sport and media should not be the new Health Secretary: his connections to Rupert Murdoch during News Corp’s failed BSkyB takeover bid have been well-documented, as his desire to disband the NHS, our national health service, which provides free healthcare for every citizen. In 2009, he was one of three MPs named by the Mirror (the others were Greg Clark and Michael Gove) as in favour of dismantling the NHS. They claimed it was “no longer relevant” in the book, Direct Democracy. Hunt is also a well-known fan of homoeopathy, and is one of a few MPs who voted to decrease the abortion limit from 24 weeks to 12 weeks or under.

Hunt’s extreme views on abortion control limit womens’ options during an unplanned pregnancy. Considering that many women don’t realise that they are pregnant until around 6 weeks, and with waiting times for abortions being more than two weeks at some clinics, that leaves very little time to make a difficult decision. Hunt is also against stem cell research.

Another notable promotion was that of Hunt’s replacement, Maria Miller, a former disability minister who will take over the departure of Culture, and will also take on the responsibility of Women and Equalities from Theresa May, as these departments are to become part of the culture department. While some sources claim that Miller is more connected to culture than Hunt and his predecessors, her track record in both women’s issues and equalities is damning.

Miller has amongst other things, voted to raise university fees and voted against gay marriage. She is opposed to gay couples adopting and lesbian couples receiving fertility treatment. She is against abortion, and like Hunt, voted to change the abortion limit, but from 24 to 20 weeks. She backed Nadine Dorries’ failed attempt to allow independent and faith-based groups to counsel women seeking abortions, rather than abortion providers, such as BPAS, who provide balanced and unbiased information for women facing the challenges of an unwanted pregnancy.

In place of what we had before, we now have an anti-choice, anti-NHS, minister in charge of our health and an anti-choice, anti-equal rights minister in charge of women rights, women’s health and equal rights of gay couples. Whichever way you look at it, things are only going to get worse.

Money and Change: A Young Journalist’s Lament

3 Sep

Image

When I started training to be a theatre critic in 2007, theatre criticism, the internet and digital media were very different. Print was still the primary place for all things theatre criticism related, and indeed, journalism, while online was seen as a younger, but less important sidekick to the newspaper industry.

When I graduated in 2009, theatre criticism, and indeed journalism as an industry, was already changing; content was increasingly being published online, and independent websites were starting to rival the output of more established printed magazines. But perhaps, most importantly, in 2009, the credit crunch of 2007/2008 had become a full-blown recession, leading to redundancies, the closure of newspapers and publishers and fewer opportunities for both young and established journalists. For a new journalist, like me, who needed experience, working for free was a very real and very real way to get into the industry.

In 2012, journalism is still evolving; while some newspapers, such as The Times, The Sunday Times in the UK and The New York Times in the US have put their online content behind a paywall. However, they are fighting against increasingly popular and considerably newer websites, who continue to put their content out for free. While a paywall may be the way forward, and a way for revenue-starved newspapers to increase their circulation and make some money from their websites, many readers, writers, journalists and editors disagree on the use of them.

But the conundrum remains – how can journalists start making money from online content? How much to charge? How often to charge for access to online content? And perhaps most importantly, how do readers feel about paying for accessing news websites?

I always knew that journalism wasn’t well paid, and so, the desire to write and inform outweighed any ideas I might have once have had about making more than £25,000 a year. Although I’ve continued to work for free since graduating, primarily because paid opportunities are very slim if you have no contacts in the industry, I’ve still managed to make a total of £190 from my writing since then. However, this figure is from three separate commissions over three years and in the meantime, in the hope of being noticed, I’ve continued to write for free. I’ve also paid for all travel, food and other expenses during time, so, in that sense, some remuneration would be fair, if not deserved. But until some changes are made across the board and every newspaper decides how they can make money from online, more and more writers will have to continue to work for nothing.

Photo by Images_of_money under Creative Commons Licence

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