Mumsnet vs the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child on sex education

What is it about the SPUC that makes it more worthy of ministerial attention than the Mumsnetters?

You can tell a lot about someone by the company they keep. So what does it mean when the minister of state for schools appears to be courting the pro-life idealogues of the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child, while ignoring a hugely popular network like Mumsnet? Both SPUC and Mumsnet wrote letters to the Department of Education regarding sex education. Both letters were received. But only one got a reply. Nick Gibb MP took time to write back to SPUC; Mumsnet got nothing.

This is curious. Of course, a minister can’t respond personally to every query, but when it comes from a website that gets five million visits a month, you might imagine a politician could see the argument for answering: that’s a lot of potential voters you could reach for the price of some Basildon Bond and a stamp. SPUC claims 45,000 members in the UK. So what is it about those 45,000 that makes them more worthy of ministerial attention than the Mumsnetters?

The answer is that Gibb seems to be following the path of his anti-choice appeasing colleague, secretary of state for Health Andrew Lansley, and cosying up to the most reactionary elements he can find. And SPUC is pretty reactionary. The organisation is ostensibly a campaign against abortion. However, it has expanded its remit to oppose contraception, same-sex marriage – and now, sex education through the Safe at School campaign. The Safe at School campaign relies on one sinister question: “Do you know if your child is safe at school?” From that seed of uncertainty, it seeks to convince parents that schools are practising a sort of institutionalised child abuse by teaching children anything to do with reproduction. “Sex education in school […] is priming children from the age of five to become sexually active,” it says, marking the exact point where enforced ignorance and victim-blaming meet.

The SPUC attitude is inadvertently a paedophile’s dream. Not only does it falsely suggest that pre-pubescent children can be coaxed into sexual activity (Humberts rejoice! SPUC says your victims have been taught to want it), but it also seeks to deprive children of a vocabulary with which they can discuss, and so have control over, their own bodies. It’s this base level of knowledge – the simple naming of parts – that SPUC seeks to deprive children of.

In his letter to SPUC, Gibb writes: “I can confirm that neither the National Curriculum nor the new draft programme of study requires the naming of internal or external body parts with regard to reproduction.” For SPUC, this opens the way for them to resist schools providing any information to children about reproduction, and the organisation’s website is already celebrating the withdrawal of schools from sex ed under pressure from SPUC campaigners.

But SPUC does not represent the majority of parents. Mumsnet’s letter to the DoE – the one that Nick Gibb didn’t reply to – highlighted the results of a survey of its members’ attitude to sex and relationships education. These findings obviously can’t be extrapolated to the whole population, but they are strikingly positive: 92 per cent were happy for their children to attend SRE classes, and 69 per cent thought the subject should be compulsory at primary school.

“It seems odd for the government to ignore parents' views when it comes to sex education, and you have to wonder why," says Justine Roberts, Mumsnet co-founder and CEO. To a suspicious mindset, it might appear to be that ministers are on a mission of appeasement to the social conservative tendency, regardless of what parents really want or what is right for children.

 

Why didn't Mumsnet get a response on sex education?

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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Is TTIP a threat or an opportunity?

TTIP offers potentially huge opportunities to both Europe and the US - we should keep an open mind on what the final agreement will mean.

Barack Obama made it abundantly clear during his visit to the UK that if Britain left the European Union then it would be quite some time before we would be able to negotiate a trade deal with the United States. All the more reason to examine carefully what the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) will mean for the UK. For Labour this is especially important because a number of trade unionists and Party members have expressed concerns about what TTIP could mean.

The economic worth of such a partnership between the European Union and the US has been questioned and it has been frequently stated that TTIP could give multinational companies unprecedented influence and undermine the British NHS.

With regard to the economic benefits of TTIP there are few that would argue that there are no economic gains to be achieved through the partnership. The question is to what extent economic growth will be stimulated. On the positive side the European Commission has argued that an agreement could bring economic gains of between €68 billion to €119 billion per year to the EU (0.3% to 0.5% of GDP) and €50 billion to €95 billion (0.2% to 0.4% of GDP) to the US. For Britain, this means that an agreement could add up to £10 billion annually to the UK economy.

On the negative side, a study commissioned by the European United Left/Nordic Green Left Group in the European Parliament has maintained that TTIP would bring only “limited economic gains”. These gains have to be weighed, it was argued, against the “downside risks”. Those risks have been identified as coming from the alignment of standards in areas such as consumer safety, environmental protection and public health.

These are important concerns and they should not be quickly dismissed. They are made all the more important because the existence of already low tariffs between the EU and the US make the negotiations to reduce non-tariff barriers to trade all the more significant.

There are a number of areas of concern. These include food standards and the regulation of GM crops and the worry that the EU’s focus on applying the environmental precautionary principle might be weakened. The European Commission, which has a responsibility for negotiating TTIP on behalf of the EU, is however acutely aware of these concerns and is mindful of its legal responsibility to uphold, and not to in any way weaken, the agreed legal standards to which the EU adheres. A concern has been expressed that irrespective of what European law may say, TTIP could undermine those standards. This I find difficult to accept because the ‘rule of law’ is absolutely central to the negotiations and the adoption of the final agreement.

But the EU is mindful of this concern and has brought forward measures which have sought to address these fears. The latest proposals from the Commission clearly set out that it is the right of individual governments to take measures to achieve public policy objectives on the level that they deem appropriate. As the Commission’s proposal states, the Agreement shall not affect the right of the parties to regulate within their own territories in order to achieve policy objectives including “the protection of public health, safety, environmental or public morals, social or consumer protection or promotion and protection of cultural diversity”.

Of course, this is not to suggest that there should not be vigilance, but equally I believe it would be wrong to assume the theoretical problems would inevitably become reality.

The main area of concern which has been expressed in Britain about TTIP relates to the NHS and the role of the private sector. Under the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) provisions investors would be able to bring proceedings against a foreign government that is party to the treaty. This would be done in tribunals outside the domestic legal system. If a Government is found to be in breach of its treaty obligations the investor who has been harmed could receive monetary compensation or other forms of redress.

The concern is that the ISDS arrangements will undermine the ability of democratically elected governments to act on behalf of their citizens. Some have maintained that measures to open up the NHS to competition could be made irreversible if US companies had to be compensated when there is a change of policy from a future Labour Government.

In response to these concerns the European Commission has proposed an Investor Court System. This would be based on judgements being made by publicly appointed and experienced judges and that cases would only be brought forward if they were precisely defined. Specifically, it is proposed that cases would be limited to targeted discrimination on the basis of gender, race or religion, or nationality, expropriation without compensation or the denial of justice.

Why, you might ask, is there a need at all for a trans-national Investor Court System? The reason in part lies in the parlous state of the judicial systems in some of the relatively recent EU accession countries in Eastern Europe. To be frank, it is sadly the case that there are significant shortcomings in the judiciary of some countries and the rule of law is, in these cases, more apparent than real. It is therefore not unreasonable for investors to have an international framework and structure which will give them confidence to invest. It should also be noted that there is nothing proposed in TTIP which contradicts anything which is already in UK law.

We need to remember too that this is not only about US investment in Europe, it is also about European investment in the US. No US-wide law prohibits discrimination against foreign investors, and international law, such as free trade and investment agreements like TTIP, cannot be invoked in US courts. The Investor Court System would therefore benefit European companies, especially Small and Medium Sized Enterprises. 

It is of course impossible to come to a definitive conclusion about these provisions because the negotiations are ongoing. But it would surely be unwise to assume that the final agreement would inevitably be problematic.

This is especially true regarding the NHS. Last year Unite the Union commissioned Michael Bowsher QC to provide an opinion. His opinion was that “TTIP does pose a threat to a future government wishing to take back control of health services”. The opinion does not express a view on whether TTIP will “force” the privatisation of the health service (as some have claimed) and Bowsher admits that much of the debate is “conducted at a rather speculative level” and he has been unable to produce any tangible evidence to support his contention about future problems. On the other hand, it is the case that there is nothing in the proposed agreement which would alter existing arrangements for compensation. There are of course many legal opinions which underpin the view that existing legal arrangements would continue. While I accept that it is theoretically possible for the Bowsher scenario to occur, it is nevertheless extremely improbable. That is not to say that there ought not to be watertight safeguards in the agreement, but let us not elevate the extremely improbable to the highly likely.

A frequently heard criticism of TTIP is that the negotiations between the US and the EU are being conducted in ‘secret’.  Greenpeace, for example, has strongly sought to make this a central part of their campaign.  Although the Commission publishes EU position papers and negotiating proposals soon after they are tabled, it is impossible to see how complex negotiations of this kind can be practically conducted in public.  However, I believe that the draft agreement should be made public well before the final decisions are taken.

Once the negotiations have been concluded, the draft agreement will be presented to the European Council and the European Parliament, both of which have to agree the text. The European Council is, of course, made up of representatives of the governments of the EU and the European Parliament is democratically elected. Both Houses of the British Parliament will also debate the draft and there will need to be parliamentary approval of the agreement.

Transparency and democratic scrutiny are two things which there cannot be too much of. But, in practical terms, it is difficult to see how there could be more of either without making it nigh on impossible to secure such a complex agreement. Unite, of which I am a member, and others are quite right to express their concerns about TTIP, but let’s not exaggerate the potential difficulties and let’s not assume that the worst case scenario will always come about. TTIP offers potentially huge opportunities to both Europe and the US, and we should therefore at least keep an open mind on what the final agreement will mean.

Wayne David is the Labour MP for Caerphilly and is Shadow Minister for Political Reform and Justice. He is a former Shadow Europe Minister and was a junior minister in the last Labour government.