Sue Black: ‘‘We might live 20 years longer, but what will be the quality of our life in that time?’’

Sue Black, a leading anthropologist, takes the <i>NS</i> Centenary Questionnaire.

What is the most important invention of the past hundred years?

The World Wide Web. Its ability to bring good (and unfortunately) bad information to the masses and to allow us to communicate globally is revolutionary – but it needs to come with a health warning.

What is the most important scientific discovery of the past hundred years?

The discovery of penicillin. It is impossible to know how many millions of lives have been saved by antibiotics and by penicillin in particular.

And sporting event?

The 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics. It took place in Germany at a time of rising tension and was used as a political platform by Hitler; the response from other nations was pivotal. An event that is supposed to be apolitical and about the best in sport became about elitism and supremacy.

Which book, film, piece of music or work of art has had the greatest impact on you?

If I’m honest, it was The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I was a young girl from Inverness going to university and it was shown at freshers’ week. I was shocked to my core: there were men in women’s clothing, flexible morality, aliens, sex, murder . . . It shook me out of parochialism and into greater acceptance of diversity.

Who is the most influential or significant politician of the past hundred years?

Winston Churchill. He came to embody such a spirit of bulldog British stubbornness – a determination not to be beaten, despite the odds – coupled with an extraordinary ability to instil loyalty and patriotism. He was a born leader.

And author or playwright?

I am a Tolkien fan. His books were some of the first “adult” books I read. On every reading, I have found them to bring something new, on so many different levels.

And artist?

I am more entranced by the Dutch masters but within impressionist painting, I find such vibrant life in the colours that Monet chose.

How about anyone in business?

Walt Disney. He embodied the determination to succeed, despite being knocked back so many times to the point of failure where others would have given up.

And sportsperson?

Back again to the 1936 Berlin Olympics – Jesse Owens. It is difficult to find a sportsperson who made a greater statement, not just for his sport but for equality and acceptance.

And philanthropist?

Andrew Carnegie’s contributions to education, reform and public and civil life continue to influence today.

What is your favourite quotation?

“How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant of the weak and the strong. Because some day in your life, you will have been all of these.” That’s George Washington Carver.

What is your favourite speech?

I have to come back to Churchill and the “We shall fight on the beaches” speech to the House of Commons on 4 June 1940. For its raw determination, stamina, dogged steadfastness and power, it is awe-inspiring. So many of our politicians today can only wonder how that could ever be achieved and still be so influential more than 70 years later.

What do you think will be the most significant change to our lives in the next century?

The most significant change may well be in health care. We will continue to find cures for diseases that have plagued humankind and eradicate many of those that end our lives prematurely.

What is your greatest concern about the future?

My greatest concern is linked to our most significant change – longevity, because although we might live 20 years longer, what will be the quality of our life in that time? We do not have the social infrastructure to ensure that a dependent, ageing population is cared for.

What will be the most dramatic development in your ownfield of work?

The intrusion into our identity: things that were personal and private will no longer be so. The ability to trace people, to cross-link them and to interact with them remotely will bring huge benefits but also an enormous loss of privacy.

What is the priority for the future well-being of both people and our planet?

It has to be conservation and an awareness of our negative impact on our planet. For as long as countries are cavalier about their global responsibilities, selfishnesswill continue to be our downfall.

Sue Black. Illustration: Ellie Foreman-Peck.

This article first appeared in the 29 January 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The seven per cent problem

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.