It’ll be grimmer up north

Peter Lazenby’s home town — Leeds — was ravaged by Margaret Thatcher’s cuts in the 1980s, but the co

Gipton Fire Station in inner-city east Leeds is one of the busiest in the country, regularly handling 30 emergency call-outs over its three daily shifts. Working life for the station's firefighters has just taken a slight turn for the worse. West Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service has sacked the cooks who prepared meals at the busiest of its 48 stations.

As cuts go, it is not dramatic. No one will die as a result. It deprives Debbie Lynch, Gipton's cook, of the job she loves, though she says of the crews: "It's them that's going to suffer, really." With Debbie gone, and a call-out every 48 minutes, the crews will have little time to prepare proper meals and will have to go without. The fire authority, meanwhile, will save £200 a week for each cook it is sacking - eight in total.

The redundancies came in advance of the government's Comprehensive Spending Review on 20 October. The fire authority made small-scale savings to pre-empt what it suspected was on the way. And it was right to be fearful. It is now braced for the loss of £20m from its £93.5m budget. The fire service will have to lose 33 front-line firefighters, plus 42 posts in areas such as fire prevention, and an additional 45 "non-operational" jobs. It's hard to see how the loss of such jobs will not endanger lives in the community.

What is happening to West Yorkshire Fire Service is being replicated across the country, and goes far beyond fire services to virtually every other area of public service and protection. We already know that an estimated 600,000 public-service jobs will be cut. Even more are expected to go in the private sector - around 700,000 in total. In Yorkshire, the Royal Bank of Scotland is axing 1,000 jobs as part of a nationwide cull of 3,500. This comes despite the bank's recent announcement of half-yearly profits of £1.1bn.

Back in the public sector, we know who will be hit hardest - women. Most public-sector workers are women, including the worst-paid. They are already suffering the effects of pay freezes, and worse is to come. We should examine the cuts in human terms, rather than thinking of them as statistics.

As a reporter on the Yorkshire Evening Post, I covered Tory-imposed cuts in the 1980s. The secretary of state for health and social security in 1986 was Norman Fowler. He introduced "reforms" to benefits affecting single mothers, lone pensioners, families with elderly or disabled relatives in need of care, and other vul­nerable people.

On a sprawling council estate in Belle Isle, a southern suburb of Leeds, I interviewed in­dividuals in each category selected by Fowler for reduced benefits. For example, an elderly widow told me how the reduction of about 50p in her weekly benefit would affect her. She said she would either be unable to afford the pound of minced beef to which she treated herself for shepherd's pie at the weekend, or she would have to turn off a bar of her electric fire. A single mum said she was already in hock to loan sharks and was heading deeper. Similar stories were told over and over. It didn't stop the Tory cuts, but it illustrated what they meant to real people. Now it's going to happen again - a repeat of 1986, but far, far worse.

Benefit thieves

Already 11 out of the 33 electoral wards in Leeds have been classified in EU terms as "acutely deprived". The number of people on benefits in these wards is high. What will happen when the government cuts the benefits bill by £10bn - including £2.5bn supporting disabled people and those too ill to work - as it says it plans to do? Added to the misery caused by cuts in benefits will be the deliberate creation of mass unemployment, as in the 1980s. Take my home city, Leeds, as an example of the effects of the looming public-sector job cuts.

Leeds has a defined travel-to-work-area workforce of about 440,000 people. More than a quarter work in public administration, education and health - roughly 120,000 people in all. There are many other jobs that rely on public- sector funding - local transport, for example. The figure also excludes tens of thousands of public-service jobs contracted out to the private sector, such as hospital cleaners. But even just using the basic 120,000 figure, 30,000 jobs in Leeds are under threat from cuts, and that is a low estimate.

Add current unemployment in Leeds, at just under 10 per cent, or 40,000 people, and you begin to hit levels of joblessness worse than those of the 1980s. Then repeat this across the most deprived areas of the country. The Leeds economy has survived recession better than most, in the past, because its industrial and economic base is so diverse. It has a huge financial sector. But how will communities that are already struggling survive such blows? And what of the wider effects on communities and small businesses due to the reduced spending power of so many workers? Anger against what is coming - against what is already taking place, in some areas - is growing. I share in that anger. But whether it can be converted into action is another matter.

At least in the 1980s, the trade union movement had the strength and the resources to fight back. When Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979, there were more than 13 million trade union members in Britain. Many did resist. They were battered. Their industries were destroyed. They were shackled by anti-union laws that made Britain the worst country in the European Union for workers' rights.

Today, the trade union movement has just 6.5 million members. (It has to be said that after 1997 Labour did little to undo the anti-union laws, other than introducing the right to union recognition.) Critical industries have been destroyed, including mining and steel. Many parts of Britain's old industrial heartlands have still not recovered.

Yorkshire had 60 pits not long before the miners' strike of 1984-85, employing 60,000 men. Now it has two, with fewer than 1,000 miners between them. Many of the communities that depended on the pits as the foundation of their economy are now depressed and poverty-stricken. I could take you to former mining areas where young men who would otherwise have learned the discipline of working in the mines, and of the union, are hopeless heroin and crack addicts.

The suffering has been shocking - and now along comes a new set of Tories, this time backed by lickspittle Liberal Democrats, intending to make it worse. Those of us who lived through the Thatcher years - suffered through them, I should say - know what to expect. They will put workers on the dole, then attack them for being "work-shy" and cut their benefits. They will slash budgets for state schools and many other vital publicservices.

Ultimate betrayal

Some aspects of what is happening are parti­cularly appalling. One is the deceit practised on the electorate by both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. Neither party, during the election campaign, gave a hint of the attack to be mounted on the worst-off, most vulnerable people in Britain. And let us have no more rubbish about how "we're all in this together". We expect this of the Tories. But who would have voted for the Liberal Democrats if they had known them capable of such policies?

Then there's the targeting. It can be identified in two ways: by class and geography. Those who depend on public housing, state schools, public health services, benefits, state pensions and council home-helps - these are the people who will suffer most. And the suffering will be worst in the north, the north-west and the Midlands, according to recent research by the BBC. History records the repeated "harrowing of the north" stretching back 1,000 years. It's about to happen yet again.

But perhaps the worst aspect of what is to come is that it is unnecessary, just as the butchery of the mining industry was. Despite the financial disasters that have hit national econ­omies since 2008, Britain is still a wealthy country. It's just that most of the wealth is in a tiny number of hands. Swingeing taxes on Britain's ultra-wealthy could deal with our £155bn deficit in a breath and still leave them rich - they are worth double that.

Two things should be happening. First, what is left of our trade union movement should be preparing to fight in defence of jobs and services. Despite the reduced strength and fortunes of the unions, despite the legislative shackles, 6.5 million organised workers are still a force to be reckoned with. Second, Labour should go back to what it once was - a party with bold policies to narrow the equality gap, not widen it. Under its new leader, Ed Miliband, it should commit itself to stopping the cuts and to taxing the ultra-rich. If it does, it will win the next general election. It will also destroy the Lib Dems for their treachery.

Peter Lazenby is a reporter on the Yorkshire Evening Post

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Melvyn Bragg guest edit

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As bad as stealing bacon – why did the Victorians treat acid attacks so leniently?

In an era of executions and transportation, 19th century courts were surprisingly laissez-faire about acid attacks. 

"We are rather anxious to see the punishment of death rescinded in all cases except that of Murder," stated the Glasgow publication, The Loyal Reformers’ Gazette, in 1831. But it did not share this opinion when it came to Hugh Kennedy.

Previously of “irreproachable character", Kennedy fell out with a fellow servant and decided to take his revenge by pouring acid on the man while he was asleep. “He awoke in agony, one of his eyes being literally burned out,” The Gazette reported.

Lamenting the rise in acid attacks, the otherwise progressive journal recommended “the severest punishment” for Kennedy:

“We would have their arms cut off by the shoulders, and, in that state, send them to roam as outcasts from society without the power of throwing vitriol again."

More than 180 years later, there are echoes of this sentiment in the home secretary’s response to a spate of acid attacks in London. “I quite understand when victims say they feel the perpetrators themselves should have a life sentence,” Amber Rudd told Sky News. She warned attackers would feel “the full force of the law”.

Acid attacks leave the victims permanently disfigured, and often blinded. Surprisingly, though, the kind of hardline punishment advocated by The Gazette was actually highly unusual, according to Dr Katherine Watson, a lecturer in the history of medicine at Oxford Brookes University. Hugh Kennedy was in fact the only person hung for an acid attack.

“If you look at the cases that made it to court, you see there is a huge amount of sympathy for the perpetrators,” she says.

"You want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die”

Acid attacks emerged with the industrial revolution in Britain. From the late 1700s, acid was needed to bleach cotton and prevent metals from rusting, and as a result became widely available.

At first, acid was a weapon of insurrection. “Vitriol throwing (that is, the throwing of corrosive substances like sulphuric acid) was a big problem in 1820s Glasgow trade disputes,” says Shane Ewen, an urban historian at Leeds Beckett University. Other cases involved revenge attacks on landlords and employers.

Faced with this anarchic threat, the authorities struck back. Scotland introduced a strict law against acid attacks in the 1820s, while the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act s.29 placed provided for a maximum sentence of life in England and Wales.

In reality, though, acid attackers could expect to receive far more lenient sentences. Why?

“They had sad stories,” says Watson, a leading historian of acid attacks. “Although they had done something terrible, the journalists and juries could empathise with them.”

Acid attacks were seen as expressions of revenge, even glorified as crimes of passion. As Watson puts it: “The point is you want your victim to suffer but you don’t want them to die.”

Although today, around the world, acid attacks are associated with violence against women, both genders used acid as a weapon in 19th century and early 20th century Britain. Acid crept into popular culture. Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1924 Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, featured a mistress throwing vitriol in her former lover’s face. In Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s 1938 novel, the gangster Pinkie attacks his female nemesis Ida Arnold with his vial of acid, before falling to his death.

Lucy Williams, the author of Wayward Women: Female Offending in Victorian England, agrees that Victorians took a lenient attitude to acid attacks. “Historically speaking sentences for acid attacks were quite low,” she says. “Serious terms of imprisonment would only usually be given if the injury caused permanent blindness, death, or was life-threatening.

“If this was not the case, a defendant might spend just a few months in prison - sometimes even less.”

Courts would weigh up factors including the gender of the attacker and victim, and the strength of the substance.

But there was another factor, far removed from compassion “Many of the sentences that we would now consider extremely lenient were a product of a judicial system that valued property over people,” says Williams. It was quite common for violent offences to receive just a few weeks or months in prison.

One case Williams has researched is that of the 28 year old Sarah Newman, who threw sulphuric acid at Cornelius Mahoney, and was tried for the “intent to burn and disfigure him” at the Old Bailey in 1883. The attacker and victim had been living together, and had three children together, but Mahoney had abandoned Newman to marry another woman.

Although Mahoney lost the sight in his right eye, his attacker received just 12 months imprisonment with hard labour.

Two other cases, uncovered by Ancestry.co.uk, illustrate the Victorian attitude to people and property. Mary Morrison, a servant in her 40s, threw acid in the face of her estranged husband after he didn’t give her a weekly allowance. The attack disfigured and blinded him.

In 1883, Morrison was jailed for five years, but released after two and a half. The same year, Dorcas Snell, also in her 40s, received a very similar sentence – for stealing a piece of bacon.

"People just had more options"

If Victorian attitudes become clearer with research, why acid attacks receded in the 20th century remains something of a mystery.

“My theory is people just had more options,” says Watson. With manufacturing on the wane, it became a little harder to get hold of corrosive fluid. But more importantly, the underlying motivation for acid attacks was disappearing. “Women can just walk away from relationships, they can get divorced, get a job. And maybe men don’t feel the same shame if women leave.”

Acid attacks did not disappear completely, though. Yardie gangs – mainly comprised of Jamaican immigrants – used acid as a weapon in the 1960s. Other gangs may have used it too, against victims who would rather suffer in silence than reveal themselves to the police.

Meanwhile, in 1967, the first acid attacks in Bangladesh and India were recorded. This would be the start of a disturbing, misogynistic trend of attacks across Asia. “Acid attacks, like other forms of violence against women, are not random or natural phenomena,” Professor Yakin Ertürk, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, wrote in 2011. “Rather, they are social phenomena deeply embedded in a gender order that has historically privileged patriarchal control over women and justified the use of violence to ‘keep women in their places’.”

The re-emergence of acid attacks in Britain has been interpreted by some as another example of multiculturalism gone wrong. “The acid attacks of London’s Muslim no-go zones”, declared the right-wing, US-based Front Page magazine.

In fact, descriptions of the recent attackers include white men, and black and minority ethnic groups are disproportionately among the victims. A protest by delivery drivers against acid attacks was led by Asian men. 

Jaf Shah, from the Acid Survivors Trust International, suspects the current spate of attacks in fact originates from gang-related warfare that has in turn inspired copycat attacks. “In the UK because of the number of men attacked, it goes against the global pattern,” he says. “It’s complicated by multiple motivations behind these attacks.” Unlike other weapons in the UK, acid is easy to obtain and carry, while acid attacks are prosecuted under the non-specific category of grievous bodily harm. 

Among the recent victims is a British Muslim businessman from Luton, who says he was attacked by a bald white man, two teenage boys in east London, a delivery man, also in east London, who had his moped stolen at the same time, and a man in Leicester whose girlfriend – in a move Hugh Kennedy would recognise – poured acid on him while he slept.

Shah believes the current anxiety about acid attacks stems from the fact the general public is being attacked, rather than simply other members of gangs. Perhaps, also, it relates to the fact that, thanks to advances in our understanding of trauma since the Victorian period, 21st century lawmakers are less interested in the theft of a moped than the lifetime of scars left on the driver who was attacked.

With Rudd promising a crackdown, the penalties for acid throwing are only likely to get harsher. “Many survivors feel the sentencing is too lenient,” Shah says. Still, the rise and fall and rise again of acid throwing in the UK suggests the best way to eradicate the crime may lie outside the courts.

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

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Melvyn Bragg guest edit