Essay

Effective social action: an approach to delivering race equality

Deciding how to effectively address a social ill often appears to be fraught with difficulty.  The Government launch of the Serious Violence Strategy, is perhaps the latest example. The call by many families and communities for action to end the violence that has seen a rise in the number of deaths in London, has quickly descended into hyperbole, with the suggestions that the ‘murder-rate’ in London has overtaken New York regularly repeated, without qualification or explanation.  However, it often appears that the only way to secure social action is to highlight how damaging a problem is and the urgency of action. In this context, it is no surprise then, those of us calling for action to address the impact of racism will highlight the persistence of discrimination in access to employment or under-representation in popular media, or over-representation in poorest quality private housing.  But, such an approach to addressing racial discrimination has its limitations. First, it is very easy to slip into a victimology that denies agency and sees black and minority ethnic people as passive victims with little opportunity to control and shape their lives. Second, it is equally easy to conclude that not much has changed since the arrival of the Windrush and as a consequence there has been little improvement in the experience and outcomes of those who have hoped to make a better life for them and their children in Britain.  Third, and perhaps most worrying for effective social action, we pay little attention to whether policies, strategies or interventions have worked, with whom and why.

Yet there are examples of attempts to progress race equality by better understanding what works and building on this.  In the mid-1990s a study by the Foundation of what were then called family centres (Butt and Box, 1998) highlighted the widespread deployment of parent education programmes, but the lack of take-up of these programmes by black and minority ethnic parents.  Literature reviews at the time suggested that it was not that parents from these communities did not need support, it was more that programmes were not reaching out to these parents and/or the curriculums were not engaging and retaining parents. This was at odds with evidence from the US, which showed African American, as well as Latin American and Asian American parents, attending programmes which resulted in growth in their own confidence, positive change in relationships and in improvements in outcomes for children.  We conducted a review of programmes available in the US and brought over one to trial in England. After working with parents to sensitise the programme to England, it was deployed in London and the West Midlands through black and minority ethnic-led and other voluntary organisations.

The Strengthening Families Strengthening Communities (SFSC) parenting programme sets out to support a violence free healthy lifestyle.  SFSC is a 13 week, inclusive, evidence-based parenting programme designed to promote some of the protective factors associated with better outcomes for children.  At the same time, SFSC helps parents to explore and develop strategies for dealing with the factors in parenting that are associated with increased risk of poor outcomes for children, such as harsh and/or inconsistent discipline.  Focusing on helping parents to develop self esteem, self discipline and social competence in children and young people, as well as enhancing family cohesion and building effective support networks for parents and children alike, SFSC offers a real opportunity for building family and community resilience.

The evidence from a range of evaluations shows not only high rates of retention (on average 76 per cent complete the programme) and recommendation (99 per cent would recommend the programme to other families) it also shows a range of outcomes from including a statistically significant change in parents’ self-esteem, confidence in their parenting, family relationships (in the main with their partner, but also with other adults) and relationships with their children. Parents also report growth in their child’s self-esteem and their child’s ability to manage their own behaviour.

Furthermore studies demonstrate both reach and impact with a range of parents who have not been engaged by other programmes or approaches. Karlsen (2013) looked at a sample of 1842 parents and highlighted the diversity of the parents who complete SFSC; showing a large proportion of people on low incomes (on average 60 per cent of participants have household income of less than £10,000), fathers (59 per cent of programmes have at least one father participating), lone parents (on average 60 per cent of participants were lone parents at the time of participating), and a range of white and black and minority ethnic parents regularly participate (in overall terms 55 per cent of participants were from black and minority ethnic groups and 45 per cent were white communities).  Other published studies have used scientifically validated tests to report on these and other outcomes. In 2010, Lindsay et al from the Warwick University’s Centre for Educational Development and Research, published another comparative study examining three model parenting programmes delivered in the UK, and reported that parents who had completed SFSC demonstrated statistically significant improvements in mental well-being and parenting efficacy.

SFSC was one of the three recommended programmes for the Department of Education funded Parenting Early Intervention Pathfinders 2006-2008 and was one of the evidence-based programmes supported by National Academy for Parenting Practitioners between 2008 and 2010 and subsequently by the Children’s Workforce Development Council.  More recently, SFSC was included in the CanParent Government-led trial to make parenting programmes available to all parents of under 5’s and has also been used by the Family Intervention Pathfinders in Bristol, Grimsby, Leicester and Tower Hamlets. SFSC continues to be a programme used to prevent violence by local authorities such as Waltham Forest, Hertfordshire and Manchester, a point recognised by the Government’s Serious Violence Strategy.

It would be foolhardy to claim that the experience of SFSC suggests that our approach to progressing race equality is the only effective one.  Furthermore, understanding what has made a difference can prove to be a challenge as illustrated by the debate that has surrounded improvement in educational attainment of a range of black and minority ethnic children in London.  However, the demonstrable success in reaching, engaging and impacting on black and minority ethnic parents and children suggests that it is certainly one effective approach. Our experience also suggests that when we are successful in understanding and implementing support for black and minority ethnic communities, we are likely to put in place the components to reach and impact white majority communities who were poorly served to date.

Jabeer Butt is Acting Chief Executive at the Race Equality Foundation

We need to talk about human rights

When Theresa May pledged to correct the ‘burning injustices’ in modern society, she indicated that the Government would be happy to have difficult conversations to help address unfairness wherever it exists. The Prime Minister's commitment provides us with an opportunity to debate how we create a fair society.  For me, human rights must always be at the core of any vision of a ‘shared society’ – whether we are seeking to address unfair treatment, discrimination or improve social mobility. Indeed both the domestic and international human rights frameworks provide us with valuable tools to address and resolve all these issues. I would like to see a more open and honest conversation about the value of human rights and how they can be used to make Britain fairer.

More importantly, this isn’t a conversation that the Conservative Party should shy away from. Not just because they are the party of Government, but because they have a strong historical record in this area – whether it was Disraeli’s extension of the franchise or Churchill’s pivotal role in advocating for the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), a document drafted by Conservative MP, David Maxwell-Fyfe.

It is well known that the human rights debate amongst Conservatives has not always been straightforward.  Uncertainty in many quarters has resulted in calls for the UK to leave the ECHR and to replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities. These debates have been postponed until after Brexit but they are definitely not going to go away and we must ensure that everyone is properly equipped to participate in this debate.

As Great Britain’s national equality and human rights body, the Commission is the guardian of human rights and equalities. These areas of our parliamentary mandate have rarely felt more relevant. Yet, as the Prime Minister’s ‘burning injustices’ speech showed, Conservatives are far more at home addressing inequality than human rights. Equality is an easier concept to understand and to promote; it's essentially about fairness. Who wouldn’t support the desire to create a level playing field whether its focus is tackling the gender pay gap or improving employment prospects for ethnic minority communities and disabled people?

Human rights on the other hand are altogether more nuanced. Fairness doesn’t transpose quite as straightforwardly to human rights. For example, some people feel it isn't fair for prisoners to have the right to vote. For many, human rights feel like a zero-sum game. The fact that human rights apply to everyone and are universal is also a tricky concept for some. Indeed recent research by Bright Blue has shown universality is a divisive issue for many Conservatives.  As such, many people prefer a ‘pick and mix’ approach to human rights and are happier supporting the right to a fair trial for suspected criminals than ensuring convicted criminals have the right to a private and family life.

To look more closely at public attitudes towards human rights the Commission has recently worked with ComRes. Our survey has thrown up some encouraging findings. For example, we found that 90% of people surveyed support human rights as a concept. This is valuable evidence for Conservatives who want to change the nature of the debate and show that people aren't quite as opposed to the concept of human rights as some media reports might lead us to believe. We also tested views about the continued protection of rights after Brexit. Tellingly, there was strong agreement with 79% of people in favour of maintaining current protections. This is valuable information about where we need to focus our attention.

My anxiety, however, is that the polarising political environment of Brexit means that the Government’s attention is narrowly focused on economic matters at the expense of human rights. Clearly economic and trade issues are vital to the future of our country – but so too are our values.  How we treat others will define us as a nation and for this reason we have argued passionately that rights must be protected in British law once we leave the EU.

I'm certain that people didn’t vote for Brexit in order to have their rights at work weakened or to lose protection of their personal data – both elements of the EU Charter on Fundamental Rights that the Government currently plans to remove from UK law.  Although the House of Lords recently voted to secure amendments to maintain these protections we must wait to see how these amendments fare in the House of Commons.

The Commission will continue its important work to understand how people perceive human rights and how we can build wider support for their role. I am keen that the Commission facilitates a wider debate beyond those who are supportive and those who are opposed to human rights. We need to move beyond these echo chambers by providing real life examples of how human rights help all of us.  Human rights are a force for good and we should not be afraid to say so - not just to people who agree with us but to the wider public too.

David Isaac is the Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission

Britain can lead the way in protecting civilians in conflict

Even wars have rules. One of the rules, grounded in moral ideas about mercy, compassion and restraint, is that civilians should be protected – and protecting children from the worst excesses of armed conflicts they played no part in creating is surely a test of our shared humanity.

We are failing that test. Millions of children have had their lives torn apart by unimaginable acts of violence. In some cases, these children are the target of murderous attacks, rape, kidnapping and forced recruitment into armed groups. In others, they are viewed by warring groups as expendable collateral damage by military commanders who oversee indiscriminate bombardments in high-density urban areas, the obstruction of humanitarian aid, or the destruction of schools and hospitals.

Save the Children is dealing with the everyday realities of modern conflict – and with the culture of impunity surrounding attacks on children. In Yemen, the organisation’s staff are responding to the needs of children suffering extreme malnutrition as a consequence of war, the obstruction of humanitarian aid, and economic dislocation. In Syria, Save the Children’s partners have had schools and health clinics bombed. From South Sudan to Iraq, Yemen and the DRC, programmes are responding to the needs of children who have been traumatised or separated from their families.

The UK can play a leadership role in combating the impunity surrounding attacks on civilians. This is not about convening one-off summits. Leadership requires a carefully thought out strategy aimed at strengthening the three critical pillars of civilian protection: humanitarian law, human rights law and international criminal law. It is also about projecting the norms and values that underpin these instruments through the UK’s distinctive voice in international affairs.

This is not a theoretical debate. What you get with the erosion of universal values is chemical attacks in Syria, indiscriminate airstrikes in Yemen, and the use of civilians as human shields in Iraq. When combatants are unrestrained by rules, laws and norms, you get 400,000 children left on the brink of starvation in Yemen, schoolgirls being abducted in Nigeria, and young children raped by armed groups in South Sudan.

No one demonstrates the need for civilian protection better than 13-year-old Noran from Yemen. In 2015 the blast wave from four airstrikes nearby knocked her down, irreparably damaging her spine. Confined to a wheelchair, her life has never been the same. She loved going to school but now struggles to even hold a pen. Her future prospects are greatly diminished and her poignant words a reminder to us all that we must do more to protect civilians, especially children, just like her. 

In the past I used to go to school on foot,” she says. “My life was beautiful because I could walk and write. Now, I can’t walk to school. I can only go with the wheelchair. I was able to go out, play and go to school absolutely fine and normal. I was able to sit on a chair at my desk and write but now when I try to write, my hand hurts because of the injury in my back. And on top of all that, I am not able to play like I used to. I dream of finishing school and becoming a doctor.” 

That is the story of just one child – but millions of children are today at risk because of a failure to protect civilians in armed conflict. That is why RUSI and Save the Children have come together to address what we see as one of the defining challenges of our generation.

On Tuesday May 8th we launched Ensuring the Protection of Civilians in Modern Conflict’, which examines how a combination of British leadership in military expertise, soft power, and humanitarian response can drive responsible military practice and accountability measures that protect civilians in conflict.  

We know that it is possible to make a difference. Previous initiatives like British leadership on preventing sexual violence in conflict and global campaigns on landmines have demonstrated that changes in policy, practice and global norms can limit attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure. They also strengthen the existing international frameworks and norms that are in critical need of protection – which is why last month’s announcement by the Foreign Secretary that the UK will endorse the Safe Schools Declaration was so welcome.

Through the UK’s membership of key multilateral groups and its world-class diplomatic service, high-quality overseas aid and some of the world’s best trained armed forces, it is uniquely placed to champion civilian protection. As the Government prepares to leave the European Union, it is presented with a unique opportunity to step forward on the global stage and play a leading role in protecting civilians in conflict based on its expertise, values and priorities.  

Tackling one of the most difficult challenges facing millions of children and their families is no easy task. But it is possible – and we owe it to children like Nora.

Kevin Watkins is Chief Executive at Save the Children UK

 

When will Britain step up on Burma?

Over the last nine months some 700,000 ethnic Rohingya in Burma have been driven from their homes across the border into Bangladesh by the Burmese military. The attacks have been described by the UN as “a textbook case of ethnic cleansing”, while Human Rights Watch and others found the atrocities amount to “crimes against humanity”. Yet the international response to this crisis has been woefully inadequate. Britain, which has traditionally led on Burma on the UN Security Council, carries a particular responsibility for this failure. In a sharp critique, the British parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee said recently that the Government’s diplomatic leadership on Burma “has struggled to achieve a clear sense of direction and has so far had meagre results”.

Last week’s trip by the UN Security Council to Bangladesh and Burma, to see and hear for themselves the plight of the Rohingya, was supposed to produce a more concerted and effective international response. Britain should have led the way in promoting this.  But initial public statements by representatives to the UN Security Council, especially Britain, suggest that this critical opportunity was missed.

Although Bangladesh is hosting nearly a million refugees, and Britain and other donors are providing large amounts of humanitarian aid, overall international efforts are falling short, with some of the most vulnerable Rohingya still not receiving the support they need. Human Rights Watch documented dozens of Burmese soldiers raping Rohingya women and girls as part of their campaign of ethnic cleansing, including horrific gang rapes.  Yet their suffering and trauma continues. There are some 40,000 pregnant women and girls among the Rohingya refugee population, some of them raped by Burmese soldiers, and some are due to give birth in the coming weeks.  But Andrew Gilmour, a UN Assistant Secretary General, lamented recently that camps are not providing proper care or protection for them, and that survivors’ access to support - especially psychological and reproductive health services - is too limited.

It is commendable that a senior UN official should speak out in this way. But where is Britain’s voice? For nearly five years, the British government has said that combatting sexual violence in conflict is a high priority, and it created the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative to implement that commitment. But faced with widespread rape against the Rohingya and with survivors’ huge need for care and support, Britain has not showed the decisive global leadership on this issue that the PSVI promised.

Britain should be helping to lead a strengthened international response in respect of refugee returns. None of the Rohingya will have forgotten the death, destruction and terror that forced them to flee their homes, or the profound discrimination and persecution they have experienced for generations in Burma. They will only return voluntarily to Burma when there is a fundamental change in these conditions. At a minimum, that means security guarantees, freedom of movement, an end to discriminatory citizenship laws, livelihood opportunities, and the return of stolen homes or compensation for those destroyed.  The Burmese military and hostile elements of the Burmese government will not concede these changes easily. It will take sustained and increased international pressure, of the kind that has been sorely lacking to date. One very concrete step that Britain and other EU states should take is the early imposition of targeted sanctions on senior figures in the Burmese military.  Other states should be encouraged to adopt similar measures.

A clear and consistent international position on accountability and justice is also crucial. Astonishingly, Britain’s representative to the UN, Karen Pierce, suggested this week that the Burmese government might undertake another domestic inquiry into the crimes committed against the Rohingya and that it should be supported in doing so. This is absurd. Is Ms Pierce really unaware of the Burmese military’s long history of impunity for mass killings and sexual violence? In the midst of the current crisis, the Burmese military has released two reports denying all accusations of rape and killings by its own security forces, and last week Min Aung Hlaing, the army’s Commander-in-Chief, denied that the Burmese military has ever, in its entire history, committed rape. Pierce also repeated Suu Kyi’s cynical claim that her government is willing to “look” at any evidence provided, an offer belied by Burma’s refusal to allow access to the UN Fact-Finding Mission established by the Human Rights Council.

If it is serious about justice for the Rohingya, as its claims to be, the British government should work with other Security Council members to press for a Council resolution that refers Burma to the International Criminal Court.This will not be easy. But there is often no quick route to justice. It would be a shameful betrayal of the Rohingya not to vigorously pursue every opportunity to bring to account those responsible for the heinous crimes committed against them.

David Mepham is UK Director of Human Rights Watch. He tweets @mephamd

Is there space for political consensus on criminal justice reform?

“I was destined for failure the moment I left the prison gates. I came out with a raging habit”

Law and order, policing and prisons have long been exploited in political campaigns – understandably seen as a potential weakness of any governing party. But there may be growing consensus that offers a way forward for reform-minded politicians across the political spectrum.

Revolving Doors Agency advocates policies to address the ‘revolving door’ of personal crisis and crime. People in the ‘revolving door’ face a combination of problems at any one time, including substance abuse, poor mental health, housing problems and domestic violence or abuse. These problems compound each other and can lead to a negative cycle of persistent, petty offending and repeated contact with the criminal justice system. 

Currently 30,000 people each year go to prison on sentences of less than six months. This is a staggering number when we consider that it represents half of all people sent to prison to serve a sentence each year. Some common offences that receive a short time in custody are theft and drug offences, which are linked to underlying problems such as poverty, addiction, homelessness and poor mental health. For women, the figures are even starker – one in four women jailed in 2016 were imprisoned for under one month. 

These short prison sentences command some of the highest reoffending rates in the system. Ministry of Justice research is extremely clear; short-term custody of less than 12 months in prison have higher rates of proven re-offending than community orders when you compare matched ‘like for like’ offenders. People who served a short time in prison were also more likely to commit more offences and more serious offences. 

Our understanding is that the evidence and public opinion on ‘revolving doors’ petty offending are not as distant as one might assume. A recent independent poll commissioned by Revolving Doors and undertaken by Populus found that four out of five people oppose the use of prison for the theft of daily essentials. Yet the most common reason people are sent to prison is for stealing. Perhaps more surprising, the public strongly back reducing the prison population and investing the money in drug treatment and mental health programmes instead. This was not a partisan issue - each of the major parties had more people likely to support this policy than unlikely to do so.

Of particular interest to readers of this blog are the following:

  • Conservative voters were asked: ‘To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statement: 'People with alcohol or drug addiction belong in drug/alcohol treatment programmes instead of prison'? 68% of Conservative voters agreed. Only 16% disagreed.  
  • More Conservative voters (39%) said they were likely to vote for an MP candidate that supported reducing prison populations and using the savings to reinvestment in drug treatment and mental health programmes than those who said they were unlikely to (21%). 
  • 77% of Conservative voters do not think someone should go to prison for stealing food. Only 14% said yes, and 9% don’t know. 

Short sentences are destructive because they disrupt family ties, housing, employment and treatment, yet cannot provide any meaningful rehabilitation. One of the things I have learnt from working alongside people who have been to prison, is that the experience is deeply damaging, and the stigma associated with having been to prison is hard to escape from. A woman in our forums said that “although I was in prison for a short time I felt traumatised by the whole experience”. On release she found herself back in the cycle of revolving doors, once again experiencing a violent relationship and the addiction that led to her criminal justice contact in the first place. 

We also see how destructive, chaotic and ineffective the system can be.  A member of our forum talked about serving 11 short prison sentences and how each time he was released with nowhere to live or to go. Another who has served 18 short prison sentences said “I was destined for failure the moment I left the prison gates. I came out with a raging [drug] habit.”  

Our neighbours to the north and south are leading the way in prison reform. The French government has announced that it will ban prison sentences of less than one month and take action to ensure sentences of less than six months are served in the community. At the end of last year the Scottish Government announced the extension of a presumption against short prison sentences from up to three months to up to 12 months. Our poll shows that if politicians here follow suit, the public will be likely to back them. Certainly in the US the ‘right on crime’ initiative has taken the heat out of the issue and made it less partisan. In some US states politicians of left and right persuasions have worked together to reduce prison numbers and tackle crime. 

We have long debated criminal justice reform in this country. The standard response has been that community sentences need to command greater public confidence before we can take any action. Yet the examples from Scotland and France show us that it is possible to do both at the same time. We are encouraged that the Minister for Prisons and Probation is considering this issue, on the 24th April he told the House of Commons that “we have a lot to learn from Scotland, specifically on community sentences, and indeed we will be looking at what more we can do to emphasise that a custodial sentence in the short term should be a final resort. In reoffending terms, it is often much better for somebody to be given a community sentence.” 

Vicki Cardwell is the director of policy and research at the Revolving Doors Agency. She tweets @vickihcardwell

To find out more and to support Revolving Dorr’s campaign, please visit their website.

Britain’s policy on Saudi Arabia has worsened suffering in Yemen

Next week marks the third anniversary of Saudi Arabia’s intervention in the war in neighbouring Yemen. The way this war is being conducted by the Saudi-led coalition has exacerbated an already poor humanitarian situation, turning it into a full-blown humanitarian crisis - the “worst in the world” according to the United Nations. Some 1.8 million Yemeni children are acutely malnourished, there are more than one million suspected cases of cholera, and 8.4 million Yemenis are on the brink of famine. 

Yet the British government has been one of the strongest backers of the Saudis and their Gulf-led coalition. It has provided largely uncritical support for Saudi’s role in the war, as well as selling the Saudis £4.6 billion of military equipment over this period, seemingly ignoring its own rules about not selling arms when they are likely to be used unlawfully. British officials have also been present in Saudi Arabia throughout, advising their Saudi counterparts - according to the British Ministry of Defence - on how to conduct their military operations in a way that is consistent with the laws of war. At the same time, Britain’s Department for International Development (DFID) is the third largest funder of humanitarian relief efforts in Yemen.

So how does the British Government defend such an incoherent policy towards Yemen? Ministers insist that staying close to the Saudis and offering advice privately is the most effective way to influence Saudi actions, alongside military advice and practical support through arms sales.

But three years on, this approach has delivered precious little: neither an end to coalition abuses, nor a reduction in the terrible civilian suffering. 

This was confirmed beyond doubt by the recent visit to Britain of the Saudi Crown Prince and Defence Minister, Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS for short.  British ministers rolled out the red carpet for MBS, talked up his promises of reform, cut business deals, agreed to an aid package, and authorised the sale of 48 Typhoon fighter jets to Saudi – all without appearing to extract any meaningful change in Saudi policy towards Yemen.  There were three main areas of failure.

Firstly, the UK claims that it welcomes Saudi’s “continuing commitment” to conduct its military campaign “in accordance with international humanitarian law”.  But this claim is absurd – not just false, but pure fantasy. Throughout the three years of the war, the Saudi-led coalition has repeatedly violated the laws of war, launching air strikes on schools, hospitals, markets and mosques – and it continues to do so. Through rigorous on-site inspections and other research, Human Rights Watch has documented 87 unlawful attacks by the Saudi-led coalition, which together have killed nearly 1,000 civilians. Some of these attacks may amount to war crimes. Amnesty International, the UN and others have documented other unlawful strikes by the coalition, and, like us, abuses by the opposing Houthi forces. 

Secondly, there has been an almost complete failure with respect to accountability. If British diplomacy was working, the coalition would surely be willing to properly investigate these alleged unlawful strikes. But the coalition has shown scant interest in doing so and the coalition’s own process – the Joint Investigation Advisory Team (JIAT) - has been slammed by the UN as “wholly insufficient”.  A tiny proportion of air strikes have been investigated by JIAT and, so far, it appears not a single Saudi, Emirati or other coalition officer has been held to account for any violation or crime committed during three years of this war. 

Thirdly, British ministers claim to have pressed the Saudis hard on humanitarian access to Yemen. But while the coalition has eased some of the most draconian restrictions on aid and access, it is still making it extremely difficult for humanitarian goods and commercial supplies to get into all parts of the country. Given the gravity of the crisis, Yemen needs a concerted effort to facilitate the flow of aid through all land and sea ports, and action to ensure aid does not continue to be politicised.  Britain’s efforts to date have failed to secure this.

With no end in sight to this abusive war, the British government needs to rethink its approach to Saudi Arabia and the Yemen conflict.  By supplying vast quantities of arms to the Saudis, when the laws of war are routinely violated, Britain risks complicity in war crimes.  And by failing to speak out against the illegal airstrikes and the lives lost due to Saudi restrictions over key Yemeni ports, Britain’s commendable humanitarian efforts through DFID will be gravely undermined and irrevocably tarnished.  A more principled and public British diplomacy is desperately needed on Yemen.

David Mepham is UK director of Human Rights Watch. He tweets @mephamd

Multiple Disadvantage: the case for a joined-up approach to women's policies

An estimated 1.2 million women in England alone have experienced extensive physical and sexual violence as both a child and an adult. For many of these women and girls, abuse is the start of a downward spiral. The unresolved trauma from what they have experienced can leave them with very low self-esteem and mental health problems. They may use drugs and alcohol to cope with what they have been through. They may become homeless. Thousands end up involved in prostitution or in prison. Many are mothers, and their children can go on to face the same issues of abuse and marginalisation. Nearly a quarter of girls in care become teenage mothers, and their children are much more likely to be taken into care in turn.

The technical term for what these women face is ‘multiple disadvantage’, or ‘complex needs’, but neither does justice to the layers upon layers of abuse, poverty, and inequality they have experienced throughout their lives. They need specialist support to help them deal with the full range of issues they face, and the abuse and trauma that so often underpins it, but too many are unable to access it. Women’s services struggle for funding and many existing mixed services, such as for addiction or homelessness, are dominated by men, which can be intimidating and sometimes unsafe for women. Often they do not have the expertise to respond to the specific issues women face and can even make bad situations worse, with women not listened to or blamed. The end result is women do not get the help they need.

Colette experienced sexual and physical abuse as a child, and had all three of her children, the first born when she was 15, taken from her care. Her addiction, homelessness and involvement in prostitution saw violence become an everyday part of her adult life too. It was only after building trust with Manchester Action on Street Health (MASH), a women’s organisation, that she finally felt able to start her recovery and begin rebuilding her life. Without proper support, women with experiences like Colette’s can move from one crisis – trips to hospital, contact with the police - to the next, at a great cost to themselves, their families and society as a whole.

It does not have to be this way.

The government is making some efforts to address some of the issues faced by women experiencing multiple disadvantage. For example, we hope the upcoming Domestic Violence Bill being developed at the Home Office will help to recognise and address the pernicious and long-lasting impact of violence against women and girls.

We keenly await the forthcoming Ministry of Justice’s Female Offenders Strategy as an opportunity to reverse the tide of vulnerable women ending up in prison cells. We hope it will acknowledge and invest in community support and women’s centres that have been shown to be so successful in preventing women offending. The Department of Health and Social Care has set up the Women’s Mental Health Taskforce, which as Director of Agenda, I co-chair with Health Minister Jackie Doyle-Price, to tackle signs of a growing crisis in women’s and girls’ mental health.

These are all positive steps in the right direction. But they also highlight part of the problem. Women experiencing multiple disadvantage do not sit in any one government department. They cross Health, Justice, the Home Office, Education, Work and Pensions, and Local Government. This means policies that impact women experiencing multiple disadvantage, such as mental health, substance misuse, or homelessness are developed separately in their separate departments. And, unfortunately, when they are developed, they rarely consider the particular impact on women.

This needs to change and we need leadership and strategic joined-up thinking to make that happen. Agenda wants to see the creation of a cross-government approach to ensure that women and girls facing multiple disadvantage are getting the support and protection they need. Of course, at some point, we are also going to have to talk about money. Funding specialist services specifically for women and girls struggling with multiple disadvantage must be a priority. But this is not about blindly throwing more cash about – it is about strategic and effective spending.

Evidence shows that women-only services that take into account the specific issues women face, especially their experiences of abuse and trauma, can make a real difference. And they save money too. For example, modelling shows that an investment of £18m per year in the joined up support provided by women’s centres could save £1bn over five years. Yet such services struggle for funding and are constantly under threat. This is partly because funding tends to come through different departments, commissioners and authorities separately, with a focus on tackling one issue at a time. This is short-sighted and inefficient, not to mention often ineffective – and means services doing good holistic work are missing out on valuable funds.

To tackle this, we would like to see the government taking a lead by creating a central funding pot to help women and girls facing multiple disadvantage address the whole spectrum of their needs. This is not about asking for more money, (although that would be extremely helpful), it is about using existing money efficiently and effectively for the benefit of all. More holistic, gender- and trauma-informed services could make a lasting difference to hundreds of thousands of women, their families and society.

Too many women and girls in the UK live in chaotic, abusive, and unhappy environments. Ensuring they get the support they need when they need it makes economic sense, but it makes moral sense too. Colette shows that with the right support women can turn their lives around. They all deserve the chance to fulfil their potential.

Katharine Sacks-Jones is the Director of Agenda, the alliance for women and girls at risk. 

The report on Liverpool prison is the canary in the coal mine and it compels us to act

Advent is always a busy time for journalists, and the last few weeks of 2017 were particularly eventful. A Royal engagement, a Cabinet resignation, Brexit papers and blue passports all made the headlines, but it was a quite different story that ought to have been of most concern to conservatives.

A report on conditions inside Liverpool prison, leaked to the BBC, described them as the worst ever seen by inspectors. Rats and cockroaches were rife, and some areas were so hazardous that they could not be cleaned. It was easy to get drugs, but much harder to get help – half of the prisoners said that they had been victimised by staff, and one in three said that they felt unsafe. Healthcare was failing. Self-injury was rising.

Liverpool’s story of abject failure is a canary in a coal mine – a reminder that, as minds turn to the next stage of the Brexit negotiations in the New Year, the government neglects domestic policy at its peril.

No public service in England and Wales has deteriorated more dramatically and more profoundly in recent years than the prison system. If Liverpool really is the worst prison in the country, other official inspection reports published in 2017 have revealed that it faces stiff competition.

Violence was so severe in Aylesbury, a prison holding 18- to 21-year-olds, that the young people were afraid to leave their cells. Feltham, a west London prison holding children, was “quite simply, not safe for either staff or boys”. Even the inspectors felt unsafe when they visited Garth, in Lancashire. In Cookham Wood, a prison for 15- to 18-year-olds in Kent, a child was assaulted every six days.

Haverigg prison, in Cumbria, was at the centre of a major police investigation. Two men had escaped from Pentonville prison, in London, and another had been murdered. Men in Lincoln prison slept in their clothes because the heating did not work. One in four men released from Exeter prison had nowhere to live. 

Brixton prison, in London, was found to be “awash with drugs”. In Birmingham prison – the scene of a riot in 2016 – one in seven men had acquired a drug habit since arriving in the jail. The same went for Bristol. In Northumberland prison and in Featherstone prison, near Wolverhampton, the ratio was one in five. In Guys Marsh, in Dorset, it was one in four.

Each week brings new tragedies. A person dies by suicide in prison every five days. More than 110 incidents of self-injury and 75 assaults are recorded in prisons each day. There are surely more that go unreported.

If we are to get out of this mess, we must first understand how we got here.

More than 85,000 men, women and children will have spent Christmas in prisons in England and Wales. The prison population has more than doubled since the mid-1990s. We lock up more people than any other nation in Western Europe, with an incarceration rate twice as high as Germany.

As the prison population has grown, so overcrowding has got worse. Three in four men’s prisons are holding more people than they are designed to accommodate.

The figures are eye-watering. Wandsworth, a London prison designed to hold no more than 943 men, is creaking with a population of 1,564 living in squalor. In Leeds, there are more than 1,100 men crammed into a jail designed for 669. Lincoln prison has room for only 403 men, but it is being asked to look after 663. The list goes on.

Overcrowding on such a scale was never sustainable. When austerity came, the impact was disastrous. Research by the Howard League for Penal Reform has shown how the number of front-line officers in some jails was cut by up to 40%. A major recruitment drive has begun in an attempt to plug the gaps, but many experienced officers have left and, perhaps unsurprisingly, retaining new ones is proving difficult when prisons are in such a parlous state. 

With fewer staff available to escort prisoners to work, education and exercise, jails have gone into lockdown with men spending up to 23 hours per day inside their cells. Inspectors found that some men in Swinfen Hall prison, in Staffordshire, had to wait for four days for the chance to have a shower.

Such conditions fuel tension. Deprived of purposeful activity, prisoners will look for other ways to make the time go by faster. It is surely no coincidence that drug use has escalated. Where there are drugs there is debt, and where there is debt there is bullying and violence. 

None of this is going to help prisoners become law-abiding citizens on their release. It is dangerous for prisoners and staff, and it is dangerous for the public, too, because problems in prisons will in time spill out into communities. So while events in Brussels will surely dominate the headlines again in 2018, Ministers cannot afford to be distracted from pressing issues at home.

The Rt Hon David Lidington MP – our fifth Secretary of State for Justice in five years – has said that he wants to see the prison population fall. Circumstances require him to do all he can to make this aspiration a reality. By taking sensible steps to bring down numbers, we can save lives, protect staff and prevent more people being swept away into deeper currents of crime and despair.

Rob Preece is Campaigns and Communications Manager at the Howard League for Penal Reform

Children’s human rights need to be central to government thinking

Some people still believe that children cannot be rights holders. In fact, by definition, human rights are for everyone, including the youngest members of society. Children also have their own international treaty that sets out specific rights for all under-18s. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) sets out the basic things that children need to thrive and have a good childhood but also acts as a safety net so children always receive at least the minimum standard of treatment.

The UK signed up to the UNCRC in 1991. This means that all areas of government and public institutions, including local government, schools, health services, and criminal justice bodies, must do all they can to fulfil children’s rights.  However our new report, ‘State of Children’s Rights in England 2017’ has found that the safety and wellbeing of some of England’s most vulnerable children is being ignored by these very public institutions whilst the Government is consumed by Brexit, be that the negotiations with the EU, the parliamentary passage of the ‘Brexit Bills’ or securing new trade agreements.   

Our report takes a look back at the past year to assess how well the Government has met their obligations in implementing the UNCRC, based on evidence from our 150 members (made up of the leading children’s charities and academics) and analysis of new data and statistics. While there are positive examples of government action to improve children’s lives highlighted in the report (for example, steps taken to better safeguard children in care and those with mental health issues) we still have a long way to go until the positive vision of childhood set out in the UNCRC is a reality for children in England. It is clear that the voices of children, and those who work with and for them, are struggling to be heard against the cacophony of debate concerning the UK leaving the EU.

The report contains the story of 17 year old Matthew who feels very anxious all the time and finds it difficult to sleep. He is in such a low mood that he lacks the motivation to do anything. Bravely he approached his GP who agreed with him that he might be suffering from a mental health condition and referred him to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services but Mathew was rejected on the basis he did not meet the eligibility criteria. Unfortunately, he is not an isolated example. Despite the Government making considerable effort to tackle children’s mental health and significant ongoing investment, over a quarter of children referred to specialist mental health services are not accepted for treatment.   

Then there are other children like Fowzia, 16, who had to live in squalid and unsafe bed and breakfasts for six months, well past the legal limit of six weeks, with public bodies failing in their duties to inspect her accommodation and safeguard her vulnerable family:

“The B&B was horrible. There were no cooking facilities or fridge so we had no choice but to buy fast food and my mum was getting very little benefits. We had to all live in two small rooms. It was really squashed and my disabled little brother had to share a bed with my mum. It was cold and dirty and when we complained, no one helped us or ever came to inspect it. At one point, someone broke into our room which scared us all.”

There are yet more shocking findings in the report. Whilst, positively, the number of under-18s being arrested has dropped by more than half in the last six years, the use of spit-hoods, Tasers, stop-and-searches and police-cell detentions on children in England have all increased in the same period. Alarmingly, our research found one police force had used a spit hood on a child aged just 10 years old. Despite risk assessments by the police highlighting the dangers of ‘breathing restriction and asphyxia’ and the Independent Police Complaints Commission investigating the deaths of several adults following the use of spit hoods, their use on children is becoming more and more widespread.

Our report also explores other areas where children’s basic human rights are being breached by public institutions. Examples include the increasing numbers of children being sexual exploited and the greater likelihood of children from disadvantaged backgrounds having poorer health and doing less well at school than their peers, negatively affecting their childhood and long-term life chances. Given the findings of the report, we are calling on the Government to ensure that Ministers have a legal obligation to consider how their decisions and policies will affect children’s human rights. This would help to ensure that children’s basic needs are no longer ignored.

Natalie Williams is a Senior Policy and Public Affairs Adviser at Children’s Rights Alliance for England (CRAE)

The UK should not abandon the Charter of Fundamental Rights

This week, as Parliament once again debates the EU (Withdrawal) Bill – more commonly known as the Repeal Bill – one of the fiercest battle lines will be the future of the Charter of Fundamental Rights.

The Government is determined to leave the Charter behind in Brussels. But a growing number of Conservative backbenchers – backed by Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP – have urged the Government not to turn the Repeal Bill into a referendum on human rights.

Even Charter sceptics have reason to question the decision to drag it into the debate over the Repeal Bill.

The Bill’s authors characterise it as a copy-and-paste exercise designed to provide legal continuity after Brexit. David Davis described it as ensuring that “the same rules and laws will apply the day after exit as before”. The Charter, of course, is one of those laws – yet the Government has marked it out as the only one it will not bring home.

The Repeal Bill was not drafted as the vehicle for deciding which EU laws we should keep and which we should dump. It “does not aim to make major changes to policy,” Davis writes.

The broad legislative power devolved to ministers under the Bill is meant only to preserve the snapshot of EU law on exit day, with minor adjustments to correct various technical deficiencies arising from withdrawal, he insists.

Primary legislation to make policy changes, alongside the usual parliamentary scrutiny, will follow the Bill in due course, we are promised.

But removing the Charter is a significant change in policy.

Davis suggests that the Charter was only ever meant to apply to EU member states, saying leaving it behind “is the natural consequence of the decision to leave the EU”. But, whether they voted leave or remain, the public did not vote to give up their rights.

Some believe that scrapping the Charter will not matter, claiming it does not protect any rights not already covered by some other law. This is demonstrably false. Courts have noted that the Charter “clearly goes further, is more specific, and has no counterpart” when it comes to protecting  privacy.

Davis himself used the Charter to challenge the UK’s  surveillance laws.

A few weeks ago, the Charter provided people employed at London-based embassies critical protection against workplace discrimination and abuse.

The Charter has been used to fight discriminatory insurance rules, to require public explanations for decisions that sacrifice individual rights in the name of national security, and to establish the 'right to be forgotten' among other things.

Keeping the Charter means keeping our ability to enforce it in exactly the way it can be enforced now, only with the UK Supreme Court taking over from the European Court of Justice as its interpreter.

Even Mr Justice Mostyn, who is no fan of the Charter, conceded its value, saying: “[t]he Human Rights Act 1998 incorporated into our domestic law large parts, but by no means all, of the European Convention on Human Rights... The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union contains, I believe, all of those missing parts and a great deal more.”

The Charter has the unique ability to strike down unlawful primary legislation that violates human rights – forcing the Government to act in a way that other laws cannot. 

The point is this: even if the notion of the Charter’s continuing viability after Brexit leaves you uneasy, taking it away from everyone in the UK is an important policy decision that should not be shoe-horned into the Repeal Bill.

For lots of people, some of the EU regulations Ministers will cut-and-paste under the Repeal Bill were major reasons they voted to leave. And the future of many of those regulations will be debated in subsequent legislation before Parliament. 

As with those regulations, the UK needs a proper debate about the Charter and its relationship to the UK human rights framework. The Repeal Bill is not the place for that debate. Let the Charter stay, alongside all the other EU laws in the Repeal Bill, so the Government can get on with the task of sorting out Brexit.

There is a world of possibilities for post-Brexit Britain. Abandoning the Charter at this stage would start us down a path before we have even settled on our destination.

Martha Spurrier is the Director of Liberty