Former Tory cabinet secretary Caroline Spelman spoke at a women in parliament APPG report launch today. Photo: Getty
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IPSA has made the expenses system like the "19th century" for women MPs

A report launched by the women in parliament APPG today highlighted the thorny battleground of MPs' expenses as an obstacle for female politicians.

The 2009 reforms to the MPs’ expenses system, remarked Conservative MP and former Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman, are like going “back to the 19th century, where single men of private means” were favoured by the structure.

Spelman was speaking at the launch of a report by the APPG for Women in Parliament called Improving Parliament: Creating a Better and More Representative House. It is a report that gives seven key recommendations for improving the situation for both women in parliament and for women at the selection stage.

The recommendations, announced in the Speaker’s State Apartments in parliament today, include adding harsher “rules and sanctions” for unprofessional behaviour in the chamber, creating a women and equalities select committee, and improving the parliamentary calendar’s predictability to allow MPs to better plan their time between the House of Commons and their constituencies.

But what stood out from these recommendations were the so-called “unintended consequences for women” created by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA), when it was brought in to respond the MPs’ expenses scandal in 2009.

Spelman noted that some of the changes to the expenses system brought in by IPSA, including the “restriction to a one-bed flat in London, which means a mother can’t live with her children for a whole week”, have caused unexpected difficulties for MPs, particularly women.

The recommendation in the report to combat this problem is a review of the current system and a gender audit of IPSA rules. The APPG’s survey of current and former parliamentarians, the results of which it used to illustrate the report, found “Reforming IPSA financial support for families” the third most popular suggestion for encouraging more people to become MPs.

I spoke to some of the MPs behind the report following the event and found that this is more of a communication problem than anything else. Navigating the current system is difficult, and although IPSA is now more flexible on an individual basis, when MPs request dispensation due to their personal circumstances, concerns remain, particularly for women and young fathers.

Before 2009, members were allowed accommodation in two locations for themselves and their family – this is no longer the case, meaning many parents have to live apart from their children for most of the week.

Mary Macleod, chair of the APPG, tells me she has been speaking to IPSA about better communication of its updated rules, but admits that progress is slow and that many women in Westminster have “no clue” about what they are and are not allowed to do. And Labour MP Sharon Hodgson, who has also worked on this report, points out to me that even if MPs do have the opportunity to be granted dispensation, they are often “reluctant to do so” for fear of coming high up in league tables of how expensive our MPs are, ie how much they claim on travel and accommodation.

When the expenses scandal endures as a reason why people are suspicious of MPs and the Westminster world, it makes IPSA a particularly thorny battleground for female politicians who are attempting to make their workplace more palatable to potential future candidates. 

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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