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A government that includes the DUP is profoundly bad news for women

The Tories' new coalition partners are deeply socially conservative.

This extraordinary election has seen one horrible irony for women traded for another. At the start of the campaign, when Theresa May looked to turn her high personal ratings (lol) into an even higher Conservative majority (lololol), it seemed that the UK’s second female prime minister was going to bring about a depressing decline in female MPs: because only Labour has a substantial record of getting women into parliament (thank you, all-women shortlists), anything that hurts Labour hurts sexual equality on the benches.

Back when a 1930s style collapse seemed plausible (lololololol), names on the line included Jess Phillips and Thangam Debbonaire, among other redoubtable feminists who have brought their feminist politics into parliament. Well that didn’t happen. Instead, Labour’s surge saw Phillips add 10,000 votes to her majority; Debbonaire's vote share went from 33.7 per cent to a dizzying 65.9 per cent.

Instead of losing women, Westminster gained a record intake of them. And the Tories lost, lost, lost (one final lol here). But this is where the next irony comes in, because the only way for the now-diminished Tories to form a government is for them to join a coalition with the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland. And a ruling coalition that includes the DUP is profoundly bad news for women.

The reason for that comes down to one issue in particular: abortion. The DUP is a deeply socially conservative party, and has consistently blocked both the extension of equal marriage to Northern Ireland and the roll-out of the 1967 Abortion Act. While abortion is still criminalised throughout the UK under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, the 1967 Act allows for terminations to be legal, under certain conditions. It does not apply in Northern Ireland.

Instead, Northern Irish women must travel to England – at their own expense. They must pay for the procedure – in 2014, the High Court ruled that Northern Irish women were not entitled to NHS-funded abortions.

Getting the money together takes time, and longer gestation makes abortions more complex and more expensive. (The charity Abortion Support Network helps provide funding to thousands of Northern Irish women dealing with crisis pregnancies each year.) You could order abortion pills, but then you could be prosecuted under the 1861 Act – as happened to a woman in 2016.

This cruel law applies to women in Northern Ireland whether they are victims of rape, whether they are victims of incest, and whether the foetus they are carrying is even capable of life outside the womb. And the DUP is fine with that. However urgently women in Northern Ireland have made the moral case for reform, the DUP – along with all Northern Ireland’s parties – has ignored it.

After a high court judgement held that Northern Ireland’s abortion case was breaching women’s rights, DUP leader Arlene Foster (because yes, women have the equal opportunity to be depressing misogynists too) said that she would not want abortion to be as “freely available” to women in Northern Ireland as it is elsewhere in the UK, which surely provoked some bitter laughter from any woman who’s had to negotiate patchy provision and the two-doctors requirement in England, Scotland or Wales.

Now, as the minority party without which the Tories cannot govern, the DUP gets to impose its anti-freedom agenda on women nationwide. Never mind extending the '67 Act to Northern Ireland: a DUP-beholden Conservative party will be careful to respect the principle of denying women choice wherever they are in the UK.

And all this because of an election which showed – among other things – that the electorate really does not want a return to old-style illiberal Toryism. 2017’s female MPs have strength in numbers, but the ten MPs of the DUP have an outside influence that could have a chilling effect on women’s rights at Westminster.

 

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

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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.