Women on bank notes: I was wrong

What looked at first to me like a trivial issue opened up a vital debate about the importance of women's achievements in our society.

Here's the thing: I was wrong.

When Caroline Criado-Perez first started making noise about the fact that the Bank of England had dropped the only woman chosen to be on a banknote - Elizabeth Fry - and replaced her with Winston Churchill, I didn't think it was a big deal. Aren't there bigger things to worry about than who gets pictured on our money? What about rape, domestic violence, global hunger, income inequality, the fact I can't find a shoe that is comfortable and stylish? Why are bloody feminists always obsessing over the small stuff instead of solving the real problems?

Now, I've realised that this the line of reasoning that ends, inexorably, with you posting the comment "HOW IS THIS NEWS?!? F1!RST!" on Guardian stories about otters. 

First, the kind of people who complain that an activist isn't focusing on the Real Problem aren't usually focusing on it themselves, either. They're just looking for a cheap, armchair way to feel like they're better than someone else. (Also, on a general note, being a dick to people on Twitter is not activism.)

Second, faced with a huge array of injustices, it's better to do something than do nothing, always. (I don't think Criado-Perez would have cracked the Middle East peace process if only she hadn't been too busy with banknotes.) There's a power in small, symbolic actions; I mean, what was Gandhi thinking when he had a stroll to the sea to make salt? Who cares about salt, right, when there's independence to fight for? 

Third, and this is where my really big apology comes - actually, this campaign is really important. Because of it, we've had a conversation, as high up as George Osborne and Maria Miller, about the sidelining of women in British history. People have had the chance to talk about what women they admire in the story we tell about ourselves and our country. It prompted Ed Miliband to give a speech about the representation of women in public life, and it gave Osborne the chance to do a pun on Twitter. It allowed all the tweeters who knee-jerked to "yeah but there is a woman - the Queen" a moment to reflect why the Queen is there, compared with those who are there on merit, and why women might find that insulting. It helps education campaigners vocalise why they are unhappy with a national history curriculum focused on "posh white blokes".

And it allowed Tory MP Mary Macleod to indulge in the most shameless piece of glory-hunting since John Terry. 

Most of all, it gave a template for a successful, focused campaign. Asking women to protest outside the Bank of England dressed as their favourite historical characters was a stroke of genius, giving the media a fun story (and good pictures to use every time they then wrote about the campaign - making it more likely to be reported prominently).

Criado-Perez might not have "smashed patriarchy", but she has shown that you can make the world better, even if only by a fraction. And that is a damn sight better than nothing. 

 

Criado Perez protests outside the Bank of England. Photo: Getty

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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There is nothing compassionate about Britain’s Dickensian tolerance of begging

I was called “heartless” for urging police to refer beggars to support services. But funding drug habits to salve a liberal conscience is the truly cruel approach.

In Rochdale, like many other towns across the country, we’re working hard to support small businesses and make our high streets inviting places for people to visit. So it doesn’t help when growing numbers of aggressive street beggars are becoming a regular fixture on the streets, accosting shoppers.

I’ve raised this with the police on several occasions now and when I tweeted that they needed to enforce laws preventing begging and refer them to appropriate services, all hell broke loose on social media. I was condemned as heartless, evil and, of course, the favourite insult of all left-wing trolls, “a Tory”.

An article in the Guardian supported this knee-jerk consensus that I was a typically out-of-touch politician who didn’t understand the underlying reasons for begging and accused me of being “misguided” and showing “open disdain” for the poor. 

The problem is, this isn’t true, as I know plenty about begging.

Before I became an MP, I worked as a researcher for The Big Issue and went on to set up a social research company that carried out significant research on street begging, including a major report that was published by the homeless charity, Crisis.

When I worked at The Big Issue, the strapline on the magazine used to say: “Working not Begging”. This encapsulated its philosophy of dignity in work and empowering people to help themselves. I’ve seen many people’s lives transformed through the work of The Big Issue, but I’ve never seen one person’s life transformed by thrusting small change at them as they beg in the street.

The Big Issue’s founder, John Bird, has argued this position very eloquently over the years. Giving to beggars helps no one, he says. “On the contrary, it locks the beggar in a downward spiral of abject dependency and victimhood, where all self-respect, honesty and hope are lost.”

Even though he’s now doing great work in the House of Lords, much of Bird’s transformative zeal is lost on politicians. Too many on the right have no interest in helping the poor, while too many on the left are more interested in easing their conscience than grappling with the hard solutions required to turn chaotic lives around.

But a good starting point is always to examine the facts.

The Labour leader of Manchester City Council, Richard Leese, has cited evidence that suggests that 80 per cent of street beggars in Manchester are not homeless. And national police figures have shown that fewer than one in five people arrested for begging are homeless.

Further research overwhelmingly shows the most powerful motivating force behind begging is to fund drug addiction. The homeless charity, Thames Reach, estimates that 80 per cent of beggars in London do so to support a drug habit, particularly crack cocaine and heroin, while drug-testing figures by the Metropolitan Police on beggars indicated that between 70 and 80 per cent tested positive for Class A drugs.

It’s important to distinguish that homelessness and begging can be very different sets of circumstances. As Thames Reach puts it, “most rough sleepers don’t beg and most beggars aren’t rough sleepers”.

And this is why they often require different solutions.

In the case of begging, breaking a chaotic drug dependency is hard and the important first step is arrest referral – ie. the police referring beggars on to specialised support services.  The police approach to begging is inconsistent – with action often only coming after local pressure. For example, when West Midlands Police received over 1,000 complaints about street begging, a crackdown was launched. This is not the case everywhere, but only the police have the power to pick beggars up and start a process that can turn their lives around.

With drug-related deaths hitting record levels in England and Wales in recent years, combined with cuts to drug addiction services and a nine per cent cut to local authority health budgets over the next three years, all the conditions are in place for things to get a lot worse.

This week there will be an important homelessness debate in Parliament, as Bob Blackman MP's Homelessness Reduction Bill is due to come back before the House of Commons for report stage. This is welcome legislation, but until we start to properly distinguish the unique set of problems and needs that beggars have, I fear begging on the streets will increase.

Eighteen years ago, I was involved in a report called Drugs at the Sharp End, which called on the government to urgently review its drug strategy. Its findings were presented to the government’s drugs czar Keith Hellawell on Newsnight and there was a sense that the penny was finally dropping.

I feel we’ve gone backwards since then. Not just in the progress that has been undone through services being cut, but also in terms of general attitudes towards begging.

A Dickensian tolerance of begging demonstrates an appalling Victorian attitude that has no place in 21st century Britain. Do we really think it’s acceptable for our fellow citizens to live as beggars with no real way out? And well-meaning displays of “compassion” are losing touch with pragmatic policy. This well-intentioned approach is starting to become symptomatic of the shallow, placard-waving gesture politics of the left, which helps no one and has no connection to meaningful action.

If we’re going make sure begging has no place in modern Britain, then we can’t let misguided sentiment get in the way of a genuine drive to transform lives through evidenced-based effective policy.

Simon Danczuk is MP for Rochdale.