Heidi Alexander – virtual hustings

Heidi Alexander has responded to our virtual hustings. You can read her responses here. Heidi is standing for re-election in Lewisham East as a representative of the Labour Party.

  1. What will you do to support carers & 2) 

    How will you work with us to implement universal child care?

Huge progress has been made in the last few decades to enable women and men to balance their caring responsibilities with their working life – the introduction of some free childcare, improvements to maternity and paternity leave and pay have all made a difference but there is still so much more that needs to be done. Government support has primarily focussed on the needs of mums and dads caring for children as opposed to the care provided by the family to ageing parents. This imbalance needs to be addressed – not least because of the speed with which we are ageing as a country. The recent debacle which has characterised the debate about how to fund social care is symptomatic of the problem. At the moment there is a care lottery for older people – your chances are determined by whether you are unlucky enough to get cancer or dementia, the size of your bank balance and to a lesser degree, the area where you live. This has to change. In the short term, there needs to be increased funding to local authorities to provide care packages to those without the means to pay for it themselves. Staff providing home care or working in residential homes need to be paid a decent wage (more than you are paid to stack shelves in the local supermarket in my view). Labour’s proposals for extra funding to local authorities and our plans for a higher minimum wage should help in this respect. For unpaid full-time carers, Labour’s manifesto includes a commitment to increase Carer’s Allowance so that it is in line with Jobseeker’s Allowance and we would also extend the provision of free childcare.

3. The Impact of BREXIT:

One of the things that has struck me over the last few years, is the extent to which the debate about Brexit has been dominated by men (Gina Miller is a rare and fine exception to this!). Whilst trade and foreign policy haven’t traditionally been areas of expertise for me, I have spent a considerable amount of time since the referendum educating myself in these areas so that I can make a well informed (and hopefully effective) contribution to the debate. I tabled a reasoned amendment to the Article 50 Bill, which if passed would have halted the Bill’s progress, based on the Government’s failure to safeguard British interests in the single market. I also voted for amendments to the Bill that would have secured the rights of EU citizens living in the UK, and enshrined into law proper Parliamentary scrutiny of Brexit negotiations and any final deal.

I am concerned that the approach to Brexit being pursued by the Conservatives which prioritises “sovereignty” and “immigration controls” over the economy could do untold harm to our country. In London, our economy is highly dependent upon service industries and we have all heard the announcements from companies who are looking to set up operations overseas. Job losses won’t just be confined to the banks if that happens – it will impact upon retail, hospitality, security staff and all manner of other areas of the economy. This will be bad for public services as decreased tax revenue means less money to spend on schools and hospitals. I will fight for an EU deal that protects jobs and investment and I will do everything I can to ensure the protections which the EU has helped to enshrine for women in a whole range of areas (including at work) continue to exist.

4. WOMEN AND MIGRATION

One often-overlooked fact in the debate about immigration is that the UK has a controlled system of immigration for people who come from countries which make up 90% of the world’s population. I see a number of women in my advice surgeries who have been treated poorly by the immigration system. This is often due to appalling and slow administration of the system and a Government which is constantly trying to keep up with its own divisive and deluded rhetoric. The Home Office needs more staff so that enforcement of immigration decisions can take place in a timely, professional and humane manner. The Labour Party has committed to this. I think the system whereby women with children are often given limited leave to remain with no recourse to public funds needs to be reviewed. I have seen more and more of this type of visa in recent years and despite asking parliamentary questions, I have got no answers about why this is increasingly prevalent. It leaves women and their children in an awful situation – they are deemed to have a right to stay but their ability to live is severely constrained. I am not opposed in principle to the income threshold but I do think the way in which it operates should be reviewed – where people have genuine and subsiding relationships, and a reasonable case to stay in the UK together, I think there needs to be more flexibility to allow this to happen.

5. EQUAL PAY

I know from casework I have dealt with from my own constituents that real problems with discrimination at work persist for women. Maternity discrimination in particular is sadly more prevalent than many people realise. Legal frameworks are in place to protect women, however, the Conservatives have stripped away many forms of legal aid, and now the cost of paying employment tribunal fees means many women are unable to access the justice to which they are entitled. The law on employment rights is effectively worthless if women are unable to use it when they have been discriminated against by their employers.

Labour would abolish these unfair employment tribunal fees, so that employees can readily access justice and invoke the rights to which they are entitled, including equal treatment at work around maternity leave and pay.

Labour has also pledged to set up a new civil enforcement system to ensure compliance with gender pay auditing so that women have fair access to employment and promotion opportunities and are treated fairly at work.

6. EQUAL EDUCATION

Theresa May might think in terms of boys’ jobs and girls’ jobs but I can safely say I am often seen putting the rubbish out and my husband is often to be found on a Sunday evening with an iron in his hand!

I think it should be compulsory for all schools to demonstrate equal access to all subjects, activities and options. Oftsed could set standards for girls’ participation and achievement in STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) and boys’ in Music, Art and English Literature. In co-ed schools I think there is still quite a bit of gender stereotyping that goes on – in 2017 it shouldn’t be the case that it’s still harder for a boy to be a ballet dancer or violinist and harder for a girl to be a physicist or play high level football.

I think the Department for Education Guidance to schools should include specific advice on addressing gender inequality and that the Government should review current school practice to inform policy in this area. It should also be part of all teacher training and we should reintroduce training and leadership development for Heads in a range of areas (including diversity and equality). Educational professionals could also be encouraged to research and qualify around equality and diversity issues, fund Masters programmes, or working groups around key areas for Masters credits, or commission entire courses at key universities.

7. WE require an end to violence against women and girls.

I will continue to work with local groups and services to ensure that women in Lewisham have access to appropriate support and advice at the times in their life when they need it most. In the last Parliament, I supported a Private Member’s Bill that committed the Government to ratifying the Istanbul Convention on tackling violence against women and girls. The law commits the Government to the EU-wide legal framework of tackling, monitoring and preventing violence against women and girls.

Labour has pledged to appoint a commissioner to set new standards for tackling domestic and sexual violence, and a new National Refuge Fund to tackle the closure of women’s refuges that has spread across the country under the Conservatives.

Statutory provision of sex and relationships education in schools is also essential. This is vital to ensuring that young people learn about healthy relationships from an early stage in their lives.

Labour has committed to legal reforms for victims of domestic violence including prohibiting the cross examination of victims by their abuser, banning the use of community resolutions as a response to domestic violence, and re-establishing early advice entitlements in Family Courts for victims of domestic violence.

8. Equal Representation

As a female MP, I have worked hard over the last 7 years to encourage girls in Lewisham to get involved in politics, to believe in their abilities, and to go after what they want in life. I regularly visit schools and host groups of young people in the House of Commons to talk about my work as an MP and life in Parliament. I have taken numerous young women for work experience placements in my office and have acted as a mentor for women taking part in the Fabian Women’s Leadership Programme.

In the run up to International Women’s Day this year, I organised an event in Parliament for eighty 15 year old girls from Bonus Pastor School to meet with inspirational women who have excelled in their careers. For the last 4 years I have also hosted an annual event in the Commons with local organisation, InspirationalYou, which seeks to inspire women across London, linking them up with mentors and role models in a variety of industries and professions. I will continue my work in this area if re-elected.

I strongly believe that Labour is the party of equality – demonstrated by its commitment to a 50/50 balance of men and women in the Cabinet of a future Government. 41% of Labour’s Parliamentary candidates at this election are women – a higher proportion than any other national party.

9. Equal Health

Clearly the health needs of men and women will differ and the challenges in providing timely, high quality care to both genders will vary. Encouraging older men to visit a doctor when the early signs of a problem appear is still a huge challenge and when we think about gender and healthcare this is something which must not be ignored.

Women of different ages and different backgrounds will also have different experiences. Being able to see a female medical practitioner is hugely important for many women and so efforts to make the workforce diverse and representative of its patient base should always be a priority.

When I served as the Shadow Health Secretary, I saw first-hand how women’s interests can be overlooked (sometimes unintentionally) by NHS employers. The new junior doctor contract which was the source of much controversy was found by the Equality and Human Rights Commission to discriminate against women. The Government’s own equality impact assessment of the contract suggested that circumstances which disproportionately impact women, such as taking time out from work for maternity leave or caring responsibilities, would adversely affect their pay and training opportunities.

The truth is women need to be in senior decision making positions and a culture of gender awareness needs to permeate all parts of the NHS if we are to avoid a repeat of these sorts of problems.

My Labour colleague Lord Hunt undertook a piece of work last year on women and BME representation on NHS boards. His study found that only 28% of NHS Trusts were chaired by women, despite women making up the vast majority of the workforce. Rectifying this imbalance, with appropriate support and training for women to progress to these positions, would be a good start!

10. EQUALITY IN THE MEDIA

Some of the time you just have to call it out. I have been subjected to some ridiculous headlines. “Female politicians flaunt their assets to get what they want” was one of the standouts, although being told to “lay off the hobnobs” by Michael Gove’s wife is also up there.

Women do get subjected to a type of crass and overtly sexist journalism that men don’t. It largely comes from the same sources (remember the picture of Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon on the front page of the Mail?) and needs to be challenged. I don’t believe that this small but vocal section of the press represents views that the vast majority of the British public actually hold.

I think handling abuse on social media is more difficult. I do experience sexist
and derogatory comments on Twitter, but I choose usually to ignore and mute abusive accounts. Whilst social media can be empowering and engaging, I think there is a pernicious side to it, and responding to it mostly gives the trolls the attention they crave.

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About justRMJ

Theatre Director, Artistic Director of Just Jones &, a touring theatre company (www.justjonestheatre.org.uk). Also Co-Chair of What's Next?-Southwark, part of a national movement to place arts and culture at the heart of public conversations. Inhabitant and co-creator of the Happy City, freecycler, gardener and Action Learning Facilitator. Blogging about all and some of those things, not necessarily in that order.
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