Nigella & Saatchi – The message needs to be clear that this behaviour is unacceptable

I was shocked to see the pictures of Nigella Lawson being throttled (‘playfully’ or not) by her husband Charles Saatchi. To see someone who has delighted us for years with her rejection of the model of the ‘perfect woman’ – daring to be voluptuous not skinny and powerful, yet a lover of cooking and entertaining, has been an inspiration to many.

Nigella herself has been the lost voice in this story – whilst we know that Saatchi has been cautioned and that she was visibly upset in the wake of the incident, it is unclear whether her leaving the family home has been to let the story die down or to give herself some space to consider her future.

It is futile to speculate whether this is the latest in a long line of such incidents or a one-off, but the story is now in the public domain and has brought the issue of domestic violence into the spotlight.

Refuge is a charity that helps victims of domestic abuse in the UK, giving abused women a place to go when they decide to leave. Women’s aid has found that 1 in 4 women in the UK will suffer domestic abuse over their lifetime and at any given time the problem affects 6-10% of them.

Whilst Nigella has greater means than those who use Refuge’s services, her case does show that the problem is a human rather than an economic one. What happens behind closed doors is only truly known by the man and woman involved, whether that door is to a million pound mansion or a council flat. What is clear is that on average a woman will be attacked 35 times before calling for help.

Questions have been raised about whether the caution for Saatchi is enough. Given the current state of the evidence – some very incriminating photos but no complaint from the victim and no evidence of other incidences – I’m not certain what else the police can do at this point.

However, we do need to ensure that getting away with a caution does not send out the signal that violent behavior towards women deserves no more than a slap on the wrist and immediate leave to go home and do it again. Saatchi himself has not apologized, but only admits to accepting the caution because he ‘didn’t want the issue hanging over us.’ There is a shocking lack of humility here, which seems to me to say that Saatchi isn’t sorry that he did it, just sorry that he got caught. It is important that those following this story know that whatever his intentions, his actions were totally unacceptable and that Nigella knows that there is never any excuse for such physical actions.

Last week, the government rejected the chance to add Sex & Relationships Education (SRE) to the National Curriculum. This was an attempt to add clear guidelines for what constitutes sexual and domestic abuse to the current biological explanations. It is important that, whether taught at school or elsewhere, domestic violence is highlighted as a real problem in our society – currently women who are killed by a violent partner or ex-partner constitute nearly 40% of all female homicide victims in the UK.

This problem is real and so much bigger than Nigella & Charles. With 70% of UK adults wanting their local council to fund domestic violence services, there is a clear case for extending government support. Hopefully this can be taken up as an issue in the near future.

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Stop Bashing Generation Y: They are the Future

On reading an article about a report suggesting that interest rates on student loans issued in the past 15 years should be increased, I sighed. If this piece of research ever forms policy, it will be the latest in a line of decisions that have been made by this government to punish the younger generation whilst leaving the Baby Boomers sitting pretty.

I need to declare an interest: I have a student loan from 2004-7 that I am still paying off. Currently, the great thing about it is that I only need to pay it off when working and earning over a certain amount in the UK. Whilst not zero, the interest is negligible and I would definitely not consider paying the loan off early. It’s cheap money and I know my finance. It’s staying put (as long as the current terms do). I (along with most others) would not have taken out a loan from a commercial bank to fund my studies, precisely because of inflexible repayment terms.

Of course, this is a very ‘middle class problem’, but my argument is not so much with the individual policy than with the general indifference shown to the current generation of graduates and recent graduates. Whilst my parents (early 60s) have worked really hard all of their lives, it smarts me slightly to see them swanning around London with free travelcards when many of my peers find it impossible to get full-time, paid work.

Many of the Baby Boomers are working later into life and they enjoy far better health than previous generations, having benefitted from the National Health Service since its creation. Whilst every generation has its winners and losers, a lot seems to have been handed on a plate to the new or next retirees. This is a well-worn list: pensions, cheap housing, free higher education, earning at the peak of their careers though the Blair boom years…

Of course, every generation has their share of luck and loss. Many of my contemporaries are very successful, but even these individuals have to deal with a less stable job market, nearly insurpassable financial barriers to entry to the housing market and almost zero chance of a nice stable company/private pension to see us through old age.

Even middle class twentysomethings with good, stable jobs often have to resort to the bank of Mum & Dad to fund housing deposits and get them off the awful rental market (I only have experience in London, but it’s never been good value or good service). This situation not only reduces our independence but puts the control over our living arrangements right back into the hands of those who already influence policy the most – the Baby Boomers.

I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t have to save for ourselves or that we need to be bailed out by the government, but policy needs to be looked at through yet another bias prism – generational bias. The three party leaders are just on the younger cusp of the baby boom, and all have small children. These children are constantly referred to as a reason to fix the financial mess that we have been left with since the credit crunch. However, what about those of us in between the fortysomethings and their children?

The simple answer that many honest politicians would give to this problem is that Generation Y aren’t worth focusing on – compared to the older generations were are politically apathetic, and our support will never win them an election. However, this is massively myopic and, as usual, lays the blame at the voters’ door. I would bet (completely unscientifically) that the reason that many young people don’t vote today is because politics doesn’t appear relevant to them. They have seen a lot of stick (removal of EMAs, increased tuition fees) and very little carrot.

There is a whole generation of voters out there, ready to be won if somebody can be bothered. Whilst I won’t hold my breath, I’ll keep an eye out (and a vote) for someone who can show that they care with real, helpful policies for Generation Y, who will be the leaders of tomorrow whether you like it or not.

This article was also published on the UK Politics blog section of The Huffington Post.

Sex & Relationships Education – we have a duty to ensure that teenagers understand consent

Tomorrow, a new clause to the Children and Families Bill, tabled by Labour shadow ministers Lisa Nandy, Stella Creasey and Sharon Hodgson will be voted upon in the House of Commons. Clause 20 is attempting to put relationships on the agenda for compulsory sex education instead of leaving the focus solely on the mechanics and biology of sex and sexual health.

Voting for this amendment is an important chance to ensure that the next generation grow up with clearer ideas of what constitutes sexual consent, a healthy relationship and sexual abuse. Historic cases of domestic abuse and sexual assault are currently regularly reported on in the media. This bill represents a chance to do something practical about protecting potential future victims.

Recent research has shown that there is a dire lack of understanding about acceptable behaviour in the vulnerable teenage age group:

*Women’s Aid & Avon found that 50% of 16-18 year olds wouldn’t know where to go to get support if affected by domestic abuse

*18% were unsure or didn’t believe that slapping counted as domestic violence

*A YouGov poll in 2010 showed that almost a third of 16-18-year-old girls said that they had been subjected to unwanted sexual touching at school

*The NSPCC found that a third of girls in relationships aged 13-17 have experienced physical or sexual violence in relationship, with one in 16 of this group reporting experiencing rape.

Whilst every parent would hope that their child would never need to worry about these issues, surely they would prefer that their child was forearmed if the situation did arise. We’ve been teaching children about ‘stranger danger’ for decades, but they also need to be warned that certain types of behaviour from people that they know and love are also unacceptable.

There can be no British stiff-upper-lip excuse for avoiding these issues. We need to ensure that the moral lines concerning trust and acceptable behaviour in relationships are clear to both boys and girls.

Hiding sexual abuse away and failing to discuss it has been proven to be a woefully neglectful tactic. Abusers, although immoral and shameful, will always be out there – just as murderers, thieves and fraudsters will be. We have a responsibility to teach the young people of today how to identify inappropriate sexual behaviour and protect themselves.

The campaign is being supported by One Billion Rising UK  and the #Yes2NC20 tag is being used to collate responses to the campaign on Twitter. The campaign has also been supported by Jo Hayman, Chief Executive of the PSHE Association.

Corporate tax avoidance – UK’s political response only demonstrates a lack of business experience

So, the argument about corporate tax avoidance rolls on. As it does, the fact that the leaders of the three (or four) main political parties are entirely out of step with the businesses that they want to see change their fiscal behaviour is increasingly obvious.

Repeatedly, I hear career politicians decry the ‘immorality’ of corporations paying less than their ‘fair share.’ However, this argument is inherently flawed – almost all of the high-profile tax avoidance stories have proven to be entirely legal tax arrangements. In fact, the very definition of tax ‘avoidance’ as opposed to ‘evasion’ is that the mechanism is a legal way to minimise payments to HMRC.

If, in business of all areas, we can’t use the law as an indication to accepted morals, where can we look? In an increasingly globalised and digital world, where it is less and less clear which countries revenues were even earned in, who is to say what the ‘fair share’ is anyway and who it is owed to?

I am writing this article from a flat in Dublin, within sight of Google’s EMEA headquarters. This area of the Irish capital is buzzing with young techies – not only Google, but Facebook, Linked In and Yahoo! all have large regional offices here.

None of these companies would deny that the reason that they are based in Dublin is the national corporation tax rate of 12.5% (actually, I have heard that the ‘mild’ Irish weather also provides the best temperature for them to keep their servers at, but that surely can’t be the swinging factor…). If paying tax here as opposed to the UK is immoral, who is the villain here? The Irish treasury for setting such a rate or the internet giants for legitimately taking advantage of this opportunity to pay less by choosing to work in a country that has an educated, English-speaking workforce in close proximity to the European mainland?

The internet industry is, by its nature, quite neutral as to its location – most of these companies began in Ivy League dorm rooms, and the offices still don’t seem to be a million miles away from the frat house in spirit, with Google providing three free meals a day, a gym and many other activities to its employees. Although I can’t profess to be an intimate of their specific tax arrangements or to have worked for them myself, from a keen observer’s perspective they don’t seem to be neglecting their motto of ‘Don’t be Evil’ too badly when it comes to employee relations.

Just as it is human nature to want the best reward for the work that you do (however hard, long or useful), it is inherent in business to want to raise the maximum profits from any revenue generated. The after tax profit is the amount that these businesses can use to expand or pay out as dividends to their shareholders. The maximisation of shareholder wealth is often the key promise made by companies to the individuals that own their stock, and what auditors check the accounts to protect.

If the government don’t like what they’re getting then it is within their own power to change the rules – feeling swindled by professionals who are simply obeying the law in the most advantageous way for their companies is a sign of immaturity and an unfamiliarity with the real world of business in our political elite.

This remoteness is demonstrated not just in behaviour but in the social make-up of our political leaders. We have (in the main) the choice of voting for parties led by four white, middle-class fortysomething males who broke their teeth in Westminster as opposed to the City or family firm. Yahoo! is now being run by Marissa Mayer, a new mother. Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg has only just turned 29. His COO, Sheryl Sandberg is another mother of small children and has just written a best-selling book in the US, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead  about female leadership in business. Both Mayer and Sandberg moved to their current roles from Google.

The main point here is that our leaders should be looking to these internet giants for inspiration and ideas, rather than demonising them. The home-working, youthful and more-gender balanced workplace appears to be the future of this industry, and internet technology will continue to be the driving force in innovation for the foreseeable future.

Rather than sulking about being caught out with outdated taxation laws, someone needs to take this issue by the horns and start to develop an international tax treaty that means that money earned in the UK is taxed in the UK. In the meantime, Cameron, Clegg & Osbourne need to look forward rather than back and keep an open, informed mind about the changes in the business world so that tax structures can be adapted to keep up.

Feminism Today: An important cause with a massive PR problem

This week it is 100 years since Emily Davison committed the most famous act of Women’s History in the UK, fatally jumping in front of the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby for the whole nation to see.

This historical morsel has been used to create a surge of TV programs on the suffragettes, and incited much debate about feminism today. My favourite so far has been Clare Balding’s Secrets of a Suffragettedefinitely worth a watch.

However, despite our amazement at Davison’s story and agreement that women should be entitled to the vote (which was finally granted after the war in 1918), very few young women refer to themselves as feminists today.

The movement is on the rise again, in various guises –Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman was not only a hilarious memoir, but a bestseller with a strident, modern feminist message. Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In encourages women to step forward and shine in the workplace, has been a US bestseller, and has appeared in Cosmopolitan UK. Not to mention the Everyday Sexism Project recently winning a campaign against Facebook to combat gender-based hated on their site.

Spare Rib, the famous feminist magazine of the 1970s, is about to be relaunched by Charlotte Raven. Spare Rib wants to bring back some substance to the female magazine market – ‘life, not lifestyle’ is the tagline – and hopefully will dilute the sea of glossies on very little but shoes-sex-and-shopping that is currently available.

Yet, despite all of these ‘green shoots’, any time that I try and have a reasonable debate, with intelligent people, ‘feminism’ is still seen as a dirty word. Almost to a (wo)man, those that I talk to want women to vote and have jobs, but don’t want to be associated with this word – to them it is tribalist, almost primitive. Man-hating ‘bra burners’ are the lasting image, not the marching suffragettes or the successful career women who exist today.

It goes a bit like this… Empowered, independent and intelligent we are, but god forbid if there was the slightest implication that we would set fire to our underwear. To be honest, I’m a card-carrying feminist (had you guessed?) but I’m also quite a fan of my bra, my boyfriend and doing a bit of cooking.

However, I also believe that most of modern society and today’s large corporations have been shaped by men, and continue to be run by them. I don’t think that creating this situation was a malicious act to hold women down, but I do think that it is harder for women to succeed today than it is for men because of the structures and role-models that are currently in place. Look at the UK cabinet with only 4 out of 22 positions filled by women. Look at the boards of the FTSE 100 – only 6.6% of executive directorships were held by women in January 2012.

You’ve heard these statistics before – yawn. They get trotted out all the time. What needs to happen is for someone who speaks the language of young women today and has actually worked in politics/a large corporation to fuze their talents and speak to the public in plain English. If not seen as bra-burning radicals, feminists often come across as out-of-touch intellectuals.

On 10 o’Clock Live (29th May), Laurie Penney had a great opportunity to sell feminism as a modern concept to a young, politically-engaged audience, but as soon as she said the words ‘Capitalist Patriarchy’ she lost her audience (litmus test: my boyfriend groaned deeply from the other end of the sofa). It’s a valid concept, but one that needs to be laid out in layman’s terms in this context, and a great example of why feminists need a message-makeover. Louise Mensch speaks in a way most women can understand, but dislikes the Liberal intellectuals so much that she can lose her message under the noise of her determination to attack them, as she did on her blogpost last week.

I’m not saying that feminists need to change the way that we look or what we believe, but we need to start remembering that to really create a difference, we need to engage as many women (and men) as possible. The key message needs to be about equality of opportunity for all – not trying to get ‘one up’ on men or, crucially, each other.

Feminism needs to begin to take some account of the female individual. judgement needs to be taken out of the quest for equality on both sides. Just as women who are engaged in feminism don’t all lack underwear and deodorant, those that are more interested in shoes and shopping aren’t the enemy, they are just women with different priorities. Feminism should be about allowing women to have the same number of options as men – whether it’s being COO of Facebook or a beauty therapist in Essex. It should be about allowing women to do what makes them tick, what makes them happy.

Peggy Olson would probably advocate ‘changing the name’, but I don’t think that we should have to. Feminism is a concept and a word with a massive history, both in the UK and worldwide. Let’s reclaim it for the women of Generation Y – we have so much to gain.