George Osborne speaks at an event in Sydney on February 21, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Tory group calls for Osborne to embrace the 45p tax rate - he should listen

Renewal's call for the 45p tax threshold to be reduced to £62,000 to fund the abolition of the 40p rate is smart politics.

There are nine days to go until the Budget, so Conservative groups and think-tanks are busy sending their wishlists to Number 11. By far the most striking proposal comes from Renewal, the organisation founded by David Skelton to widen the party's appeal among northern, working class and ethnic minority voters. In an article in today's Telegraph, Skelton calls for the abolition of the 40p income tax rate, the source of much Tory complaint. As he notes, owing to successive reductions in the tax threshold (which currently stands at £41,350, down from £43,875 in 2010), the number of people paying the higher rate has risen to a record high of 4.4m (up from 3m in 2010). He writes: "More and more people on middle incomes have been dragged into paying the 40 per cent rate of tax over the past decade. That includes teachers, nurses, bricklayers, police officers and Tube drivers. These are not people who should be in the higher rate tax bracket but are because the threshold at which it is paid has been repeatedly frozen." (Although it is worth remembering that only 14 per cent of workers earn enough to pay the rate.) 

But rather than proposing to fund its abolition through greater spending cuts, as most Tories would, Skelton calls for the move to be funded by reducing the threshold for the 45p rate from £150,000 to £62,000. This, he says, would ensure that the measure is fiscally neutral, and he goes on to make a principled case for progressive taxation: 

We calculate that a person would have to earn more than £85,000 to be worse off with this proposal and those earning above that threshold would bear the burden of the change. Someone on £120,000 would be about £830 worse off and anyone earning £150,000 or more would be £2,400 worse off. As ever in taxation, someone has to pay and it is those who are very well off who will do so, meaning that the proposal is fiscally neutral.

When he was defending the 1909 “People’s Budget”, David Lloyd George said that “we are placing burdens on the broadest shoulders”. Under our proposals, the very richest would pay a little more, while the overwhelming majority of working people would benefit, some of them considerably.

Skelton's proposal reflects Renewal's concern with improving the Tories' standing among blue collar voters ("a Workers' Budget from a Workers' Party"), which includes taxing the well-off more heavily in order to improve the living standards of the majority. Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow, and the group's parliamentary leader, has previously called for the revenue from the 45p rate to be ring-fenced in order to fund the restoration of the 10p tax band (having opposed the decision to abolish the 50p rate) and for the introduction of a windfall tax on the energy companies. 

All of this is smart politics (voters overwhelmingly support progressive taxation) and good policy, but also entirely at odds with the current Conservative consensus (Skelton's article has earned him a sharp rebuke from the Telegraph's Benedict Brogan). Rather than supporting the 45p rate as a just measure, not least at a time of austerity, senior Tories continue to give the impression of wanting to scrap it at the first opportunity. Asked by the Spectator last year whether he would like to reduce the top rate to 40p, David Cameron said: "I will leave tax as a matter for the Chancellor. I am a low-tax Conservative." And the Chancellor? He has similarly refused to rule out cutting the rate again. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson, Osborne's main contender for the Conservative throne, has suggested that the Tories should "brood" on reducing it to 3op. In the absence of a dramatic ideological volte-face, there is no prospect of any of them taking up Renewal's plan. But if the Tories are to ever shed their reputation as the "party of the rich", and start to dream of winning a majority again, it is the kind of imaginative thinking they will need to embrace. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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A rape-able sex robot makes the world more dangerous for women, not less

Eroticising a lack of consent is no answer to male sexual violence. 

On Wednesday, the Independent reported a new setting had been added to the personality range of a sex robot made by the company True Companion. Called “Frigid Farrah”, the setting allows men who own the robot to simulate rape. If you touch it in a “private area” when it is in this mode, the website explains, it will “not be appreciative of your advance”.

True Companion says the robot is not programmed to participate in a rape scenario, and the idea is “pure conjecture”. Nevertheless, the news has reopened the debate about sex robots and their relationship to consent. What does a rape-able robot say about our attitudes to consent, sex, violence and humanism? Do sex robots like Frigid Farrah eroticise and normalise male sexual aggression? Or does allowing men to “act out” these “most private sexual dreams” on inanimate objects actually make real women safer?

The idea that allowing men to “rape” robots could reduce rates of sexual violence is fundamentally flawed. Sex robot settings that eroticise a woman’s lack of consent, coupled with male aggression, risk normalising rape. It sends a message to the user that it is sexually fulfilling to violate a woman’s “No”.

It’s important to remember that rape is not a product of sexual desire. Rape is about power and domination – about violating a woman’s body and her sense of self. Raping a robot is of course preferable to raping a woman, but the fact is we need to challenge the attitudes and sense of entitlement that cause violent men to rape in the first place.

There is little evidence to back the claim that giving men sexual “outlets” reduces violence. The research that exists is focused on whether a legalised sex industry can reduce sexual assault.

Studies on Dutch “tippelzones” – spaces where soliciting is legal between certain hours – claimed the areas led to a reduction in sexual violence. However, the research lacked precise data on incidents of sexual violence and abuse, and the fact that sex workers themselves can be victims. As a result, it wasn’t possible to determine exactly how the number of rapes and assaults fell in the population at large.

Similar claims made by social scientist Catherine Hakim also failed to prove a causal link between legalised prostitution and reduced levels of sexual violence – again, because low reporting means a lack of accurate data.

Other research claims that access to the sex industry can in fact increase incidents of sexual violence. A 2013 report by Garner and Elvines for Rape Crisis South London argued that an analysis of existing research found “an overall significant positive association between pornography use and attitudes supporting violence against women in non-experimental studies”.

Meanwhile, a 2000 paper by Neil Malamuth, T Addison, and J Koss suggested that, when individuals considered at high risk of acting sexually aggressively are studied, levels of aggression are four times higher among frequent consumers of pornography.

However, just as the research fails to find a causal link between access to the sex industry and reducing violence, there is no research proving a causal link between violent pornography and gender-based violence.

Instead, we have to look at the ethical and moral principles in an industry that creates models of women for men to orgasm into. Sex robots are, at their heart, anti-humanist. They replace women with plastic and holes. They create a world for their owners where women’s voices and demands and desires and pleasures – and right to say no – are absent.

That should trouble us – we are creating products for men which send a message that the best woman is a compliant and silent one. That the best woman is one who lies back and “likes what you like, dislikes what you dislike”, to quote the True Companion website, who is “always ready to talk and play” but whose voice you can turn off whenever you want.

“By transferring one of the great evils of humanity from the real to the artificial, sex robots simply feed the demon of sexism,” says Professor Alan Winfield of the Bristol Robotics Lab. “Some might say, 'What’s the problem – a sex robot is just metal and plastic – where’s the harm?' But a 'fembot' is a sexualised representation of a woman or girl, which not only invites abusive treatment but demands it. A robot cannot give consent – thus only deepening the already chronic and dangerous objectification of real women and girls.”

What research does tell us is that there is a clear link between violence and the perpetrator’s ability to dehumanise their victims. That, and a setting designed to eroticise a woman’s lack of consent, suggest that Frigid Farrah will have no impact on reducing sexual assault. Rather, it creates a space where rape and violence is normalised and accepted.

Instead of shrugging our shoulders at this sexualisation of male violence, we should be taking action to end the belief that men are entitled to women’s bodies. That starts by saying that rape is not an inevitable part of our society, and the danger of rape cannot simply be neutralised by a robot.

Sian Norris is a writer. She blogs at sianandcrookedrib.blogspot.com and is the Founder & Director of the Bristol Women's Literature Festival. She was previously writer-in-residence at Spike Island.