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Women

So, yet again we have a Tory Minister saying something REALLY stupid and angering another group of people from amongst their core supporters. It makes you wonder if they are trying to make the other Parties lives easier for them. Do they care about the people who voted for them? These days it’s looking more and more as if they don’t.

So, who has been saying what and about whom on this occasion?

Who is being ridiculous this time?

Well, it’s an MP called Guy Opperman, talking about women and pensions.

He seems to think that older women, who are being disadvantaged by changes to the age that State pensions start being paid, could mitigate their financial loses by taking up Apprenticeship opportunities instead.

What foolishness is this? Do some of these Ministers just open their mouths and let the words fall out without thinking about what they’re saying first? It certainly seems to be what’s happening.

Just to explain the situation to people who may not know what I’m rabbiting on about this time, changes are being made to British Pension regulations which are designed to equalise when men and women become entitled to their State Pension. It used to be that women received their Pension from the age of 60 whilst men had to wait until they were 65. And this is what’s changing. The State pension age for women is being raised to 65 so that it’s the same for both genders. And there is no real argument about the fairness of this idea. In my opinion it should be the same for both genders. But there is an issue with how it is being implemented.

A group called WASPI (Women Against State Pension Inequality) argues that for women born in the 1950s having no transitional arrangement is unfair and wrong. These women’s pension arrangements and retirement plans and options are being changed without any thought as to how their plans are being changed. Their issue is with the unfair way the changes were implemented – with little or no personal notice (1995/2011 Pension Acts), faster than promised (2011 Pension Act), and with no time to make alternative plans. Retirement plans have been shattered with devastating consequences.​ And, Mr Opperman seems to think that women who are being affected adversely by these changes could take up apprenticeships to cover any financial losses they may experience.

I have two things to say about this idea – it’s unfair and it’s unworkable.

It’s unfair because these women have always been told and have believed that they will get to retire, on a full pension, when they are 60 and they have planned for this throughout their working lives. Surely a fairer way to do things would be to have a transitional period? And it’s also unfair on the young people, for whom apprenticeships were originally envisaged, to have these opportunities potentially taken from them by older women. It does not seem right.

But, the unworkable thing is what concerns me more. Exactly how many employers are going to want to take on an apprentice who is scheduled to retire either during or shortly after completing that programme? How many employers are going to want to spend any money whatsoever on training people up who will be leaving almost immediately? And how will women being paid at the pay rate for apprentices help anyway? Has Mr Opperman ever looked at how much money  people would get? Currently, apprentices over 19 and in their first year get £3.50 per hour. £140 for a 40 hour week. Once tax and NI is taken out, how would that mitigate ANYONE’S loses?

I think three things need to happen and need to happen fast. Firstly some sort of transitional arrangement needs to be put in place for the WASPI women. The rug should not be pulled out from under them without something sensible being sorted out. Secondly, and as a byproduct of this discussion,, the Government really does need to look at the rate of pay for all apprentices. £3.50 p/h is little more than save labour. Granted, apprentices need to be trained and, certainly initially, may not be as valuable to the workforce for any business, but wouldn’t a graduated pay scale be better? £3.50 or something similar to start with when a new apprentice starts and learns the basics but, once they have been around for a while, surely they are making money for their employer through the work they do? Surely someone who is halfway through should get some financial recognition for the work they are doing? Employers are earning profits from apprentices and the apprentices are earning peanut. It does not seem right. And thirdly, Government Ministers need to learn to think first before they speak so as not to come up with stupid pronouncements that upset some members of the electorate and serve no useful purpose but to make them appear to be ill informed and cruel. Think first, speak later really should be a maxim all politicians need to remember and consider at all times and should be point one on any briefing paper or induction pack they get when they enter the House for the first time.

Think first, speak later – you know it makes sense.

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I’ve just read yet another outraged post about women who breastfeed in public. And yet again, the main thrust of the argument being spouted against it is that it’s disgusting and should be banned, especially when it is done in public, particularly in a cafe of restaurant.

Why?

What’s wrong with it? I’ve seen some truly disgusting things in restaurants such as people who lick their knives, people who chew with their mouth open and people who talk with their mouth full and spray half chewed food and spittle everywhere. Can we ban these people too please?

What does everyone who goes to cafe do when they get there? Have a drink! Eat! Why should a baby be any different? We all need to have regular meals, why should a baby be any different. And the idea that a breastfeeding woman should go to the toilet and feed their baby there – really? Would the people who say that like to eat their dinner sitting on the toilet? No? I thought not, no-one would. If you bottle-fed your baby you have to make sure things are sterilised and clean so you don’t introduce harmful bacteria into the baby’s system yet breastfeeding Mums are often being asked to go to the toilet and fed their child there. Disgusting. What is wrong with people in this country. If the sight of a woman doing something perfectly natural like breastfeeding offends you and disgusts you so much there try this for an idea – look the other way.

I think another report I saw this morning gets right to the nub of the issue. This second report was about a politician in the USA who said that if a woman got out her breasts in public to feed her child then he has the right to grope her. What we have here is a man, and yes, the politician in question was a man, seeing a woman’s breasts as his own personal play thing. Well they aren’t. They have a purpose which is not to entertain and titillate. They have developed and evolved over millennia as a way to nourish the next generation. Breasts are not a sex toy.

And then there was a third report I saw this evening, on the same subject, which angered and upset me more than the other two reports combined.

This report was about a woman who has been sentenced to seven years imprisonment for breastfeeding in public. Seven years. How warped is that? A woman who followed her natural instinct to nourish and nurture her child is being incarcerated for doing so. Granted, there is probably a lot more to the story than has been reported in the press, it may even be a spoof but, even so, if it is true, is imprisonment really a proportionate response? Just the thought that such a story could be given any credance at all is wrong, just the idea that such a story could be written at all says something about the nation where it reportedly happened. Let’s not forget, we’re talking about a country where a young man who sexually abused a young woman, physically assaulted her and left her, battered, bruised and bloodied, behind  rubbish bin in an alley, served just three months of a six month sentence before being released and yet, allegedly, a woman whose crime was to breastfeds her child in public supposedly gets seven years? How can this ever be seen as right. Surely, it can’t. There has to be something seriously wrong with a legal system which could, at least, allow this to happen or which even sees the idea of it happening as right.

The issue of breastfeeding, and breastfeeding in public, is something we all really need to examine again and have a proper, reasoned and rational debate about. There must be a solution that can satisfy everyone. I have to say that one idea I have seen was in the cafe of a well-known Swedish furniture store. There was a special area set aside that had comfy seats, bean bags, tables, armchairs and screens for the use of those people who wanted to breastfeed or bottle feed their child. In my opinion, what a good idea. Granted, not all cafes and restaurants are big enough to have a whole section set aside for breastfeeding Mums but surely, in most places, it must be possible to have a table or tables in a secluded corner where breast-feeding can take place in peace and quiet without anyone complaining. People who don’t like to see babies being fed would know not to sit there and breastfeeding Mums would not feel excluded and isolated. Not only that, but small children, whose presence often annoys other, adult diners, would be able to play and make a mess whilst their parents eat, without upseing anyone else.

We all really need to have a rational and reasonable discussion, find a solution which suits everyone and not stigmatise women doing something perfectly natural as disgusting and wrong. Women who breastfeed are not exposing themselves or flaunting their sexuality, they are simply nourishing their child. That’s all. Nothing more.

And, if you really are someone who really doesn’t like it, I have a simple solution for you – don’t look.

Last night, one of my female Muslim carers made an interesting comment. She echoed the words spoken by a Muslim woman who was on the evening news at the time, ‘Why just Muslim women?’

The report they were both commenting on was a story about David Cameron proposal that the government should spend £20m on providing English lessons for Muslim women? Both my carer and the woman on the TV said the same thing, practically in unison.

Why just women and why just Muslims?

Why not both men AND women of any nationality OR religion who don’t speak English?

The government have really cut ESOL (English as a Second or Other Language) provision since they first came to power, why not put the £20m into funding for everyone who needs it? It’s not just Muslims and it’s not just women who need help, many other recent arrivals could benefit.

We recently had some building and improvement work done in our house. The Housing Association awarded the contract to a local building company who subcontracted some of the work to other, smaller builders in the area. The guys who came to my house were very nice but barely spoke English at all which made things more than a little difficult.  It would have been very helpful if they could have had the opportunity to attend English improvement lessons before they started working in people’s houses but they never had the chance. And they still wouldn’t have had the chance even if this new £20m initiative had been in place.

Why?

Because they were not women.

They were Eastern European men.

They may have been Muslim, there was no way of telling and I didn’t ask but they were definitely men.

Thanks to the cuts Mr Cameron has previously made to ESOL provision in this country, there are now few lessons they could attend. There is ever decreasing help available for new arrivals who need to learn our language. What are people supposed to do, learn by osmosis? As far as I can see, it would appear so. Our local college in Lambeth has had to halve it’s ESOL provision over the last few years and this appears to be a story which is the same at colleges nationwide. Demand is there, provision is not.

In 2008 the Government spent £230 million on ESOL provision in the UK. By 2013 this figure had been reduced to £130 million and is set to fall by a further £90 million after the cuts that were made last summer.As a result ESOL participation has fallen by 22%. The demand is still there, some courses have waiting lists of over a thousand people, it’s money and investment that is lacking.

So will this new promise of £20 million help? Probably. A bit anyway. Some women will get a chance, as long as they are Muslim, but men and non-Muslims will have to go on suffering in silence because they don’t speak English..

And that seems, to me, to be discriminatory.

I don’t often say that a policy appears to discriminate against men, it’s usually women, but in this instance men seem to be losing out. As for the Muslim thing, what about other faiths? Or people of no faith at all? Don’t they need to be able to speak English too? According to Mr Cameron It would appear not and that is very unfair. Give everyone who needs it a chance, not just one gender and one specific belief system.

If we want immigrants to be able to contribute their skills and taxes into the national pot then we need to let them be on a level playing field with other workers. Cutting ESOL provision is a short term saving that will backfire in the long term and to focus exclusively on one gender and one faith is wrong and discriminatory to everyone else who could benefit who doesn’t fit the narrow criteria for help. Have some classes that are for women only if that is what people want and what makes them most comfortable but make sure the money is properly distributed so that as many people as possible can be helped. Current plans do not make sense and seem to have been badly thought out. Go back to the drawing board Mr Cameron and try again. You could do so much better. Stop playing with our money and invest it where it will benefit the most number of new arrivals of both genders and all faiths. If you do this properly it will, ultimately, benefit the whole country as well.