We have to counter the anti-sex, anti-choice spin before it's too late

A vocal minority is attempting to influence the political mandate on sexual health.

I had hoped my first blog post for the New Statesman might be about my experience of sexism in the film industry (short version: it’s like 1950); that I think we should have a Good Sex instead of a Bad Sex literary award (why not celebrate decent, provocative writing?); or perhaps just a few lines on how underappreciated the naked male form is (and wanting this exhibition to come to the UK), but, instead, I am having to pen a piece about the way in which politicians are screwing us (no pun intended) over sex.

When it comes to sexual health, we seem to be seeing a subtle change in policy-makers’ decisions, with the vocal minority becoming more determined to influence the political mandate. Last year, I wrote this about Nadine Dorries MP, because her repeated attacks on abortion and sex education needed to be confronted. While it is nice to breathe a sigh of relief now, and know that her political objectives have been ridiculed (not least with her appearing on TV’s I’m A Celebrity), the fight for women’s rights over their own bodies still continues.

There is an undercurrent in UK politics, with, at its heart, an anti-sex, anti-women agenda. Bit by bit, the goal posts are being shifted and with each step pandering to the religious, anti-science, anti-choice ideologues, our rights, our ability to access healthcare, our freedom to make safe choices about our lives, get chipped away.

It’s incredible that we have a health minister, Jeremy Hunt, who wants the time limit for abortions to be halved, without any medical reason for doing so, and who fundamentally misunderstands that abortions are provided as healthcare for women – we shouldn’t need tragic cases like Savita Halappanavar to be reminded of this. But he sees this as a moral issue: he believes that personal opinions are the basis upon which to make medical decisions, not scientific facts. And he is in charge of women’s health. Great.

We also have a women’s minister and home secretary both pushing for four-week reductions. Besides ignoring their own parliamentary review (pdf) in 2006, which clearly states that there is no justifiable reason to decrease the 24-week limit because very, very, few foetuses are viable before then, these politicians press ahead with their ignorant opinions, arguing that “people’s views” should help form a pronouncement of women’s healthcare.

As well as the attacks on abortion rights, the coalition government is undermining sex and relationships education in schools and specialist services for young people due to their cuts in funding. If we don’t provide young people with comprehensive, age-appropriate sex and relationship education, which includes teaching about all forms of contraception, their sexual – and emotional – health will suffer. Brook, the sexual health charity for whom I am an ambassador, regularly asks young people what they want when it comes to learning about sex and relationships – and what they want is unbiased, balanced, knowledgeable sex education. Without this, they cannot make informed decisions about the sex and relationships they choose to have.

Simon Blake OBE, Brook’s Chief Executive, says:

“Most young people under the age of 16 are not having sex. Evidence shows that high quality sex and relationships education, provided by parents and at school, combined with access to free, confidential sexual health services helps delay the age young people first have sex and increases the likelihood they will use contraception when they do.”

If we don't fight against the encroaching attacks on access to abortion we will see a further deterioration of women's reproductive rights, and more women’s health will be at risk. And if we don't fight on behalf of young people and the sex education they are entitled to, then the impact on their lives, their relationships, and their sexual health, will be felt for generations to come.

In January, I'm running an event called Sex Appeal on behalf of Brook, to get people to openly challenge those who spread misinformation about sex, sexuality and sex education. We need to counter the spin that these anti-sex, anti-choice apologists are spreading – before it is too late.

Women’s minister Maria Miller has backed a four-week reduction in the limit for abortions. Photograph: Getty Images

Zoe Margolis is a journalist and writer, famed for writing the Girl With A One-Track Mind blog. You can find more information about her work, including on sexual health, at her website. She's on Twitter as @girlonetrack.

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

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