It’s easy to think that inequality is inevitable but, says Danny Dorling, we are living in extraordinary times. The overall wealth of the richest 1,000 people in the UK has doubled in six years. Not only should this not go on, but it can’t go on
We are told that social mobility is the cornerstone of a fair society. A just nation is where talent is all you need to get the the top. But, argues Matthew Taylor, social mobility in an unequal society like ours actually makes people less happy, as there is so far to fall
- Matthew Taylor is chief executive of the RSA and a former advisor to Tony Blair
Governments take the advice they want to hear. As they seek to avoid trouble and find the path of least resistance, they often look for advice that meshes with the demands of industrial lobbyists.
This problem has afflicted the life of the sea for many years. Governments consult the scientists who tell them that high catches of fish are sustainable, and ignore more cautious assessments. This allows them to get the fishing lobby off their backs, while claiming to have based their decisions on science. Bad advice from scientists and selective hearing by government were among the factors that led to the collapse of the Grand Banks cod fishery off Newfoundland.
One of the most destructive industries humankind has developed is scallop dredging. Scallop dredges are rakes with long steel teeth that are towed over the seafloor, ripping out not only scallops, but also much of the life and structure of the seabed. They have wrecked habitats all around our coasts.
The Cardigan Bay special area of conservation, off the west coast of Wales, is supposed to enjoy the highest level of protection available under European law. Among the reasons for its designation is that it supports the UK’s largest breeding population of bottlenose dolphins. So, in 2009, scallop dredgers were banned from the area. Astonishingly, however, fish trawlers are still allowed to operate here, making a mockery of the idea of a “strictly protected” area.
Bad enough? Not where the Welsh government is concerned. The dredgers have been lobbying to get back in, on the grounds that they have exhausted the supply of scallops elsewhere. You might have hoped that any government with even the vaguest understanding of environmental protection would have told them to bog off with extreme prejudice. The idea that this industry could be allowed to operate in a special area of conservation, as a reward for wiping out the rest of its fishing grounds, would strike most people as an outrage.
But not, unfortunately, the Welsh minister for natural resources, Carl Sargeant. The reason his department gives for seeking to let the dredgers back in is a “concern that these scallops may not be reaching their potential growth rate due to overcrowding and competition for resources”. In other words, the scallops have to be caught … for the good of the scallops. If there were a prize for the worst excuse deployed by a government for caving in to an industrial lobby, this would be a strong contender.
But if you look in the right place, you can always find the expert advice you want. To no gasps of surprise, the Welsh government turned to a team at Bangor University led by Professor Michel Kaiser.
Take a look at Kaiser’s Twitter account, and you will see what looks to me like a love-in with the fishing industry, the cheerleading of attacks on scientists who draw attention to unsustainable fishing practices, and support for people who claim that there is little or nothing to worry about.
He and his team were commissioned by the government to conduct an experiment in the conservation area.
They ran a scallop dredger across some plots on the seabed but not others, and compared the amount of animal life that remained. Their results appeared to show that, a few months later, there was little difference between the animal communities in the places they dredged and the places they did not. On this basis, they recommended that scallop dredging of up to three times a year (on gravel) and six times a year (on sand) could take place in this “strictly protected” reserve.
He reached this conclusion for two reasons. The first is that the Bangor team assumed, without supporting evidence, that the loose sand and gravel on which their experiment took place represents the natural state of the seabed. But there is no basis for this assumption. Before dredging and trawling began in this area, the sediments might have been covered and stabilised by a crust of sessile life, forming a living (biogenic) reef.
The second reason is that the researchers assumed the seabed they studied had recovered from the impact of rakes, chains and nets. “Pre-fishing” is the term they use to describe it. But the state of the seabed there is not, by any stretch of the imagination, “pre-fishing”. The survey took place just five years after intense scallop dredging officially stopped there – a blink of an eye in ecological terms. Trawling and some illegal scallop dredging continue, with the likely effect of disrupting any attempts by sedentary lifeforms to re-establish themselves.
If the original state of the seabed was a living reef, it may take many decades – possibly centuries – to recover. Given enough time without dredging and trawling, the scattered soft corals and sponges the researchers found in the experimental area could spread to cover the sediments, forming a new substrate in which other sessile species could establish themselves.
Unsurprisingly, the Bangor team was not very happy with Roberts’s assessment. It published a response in which it claimed that its findings “have shown convincingly that the seabed and its inhabitants can sustain quite high levels of fishing activity before negative effects occur”. But it then went on to make this crucial admission, which did not appear in its original report:
We cannot know for certain whether, historically speaking, the area was much more diverse and productive with biogenic reef structures.
This is the point that Roberts was making, and the issue on which the dispute hinges. It renders the conclusions of the Bangor report unsafe and the recommendations that arise from it invalid.
But the government doesn’t seem to care – it has the cover it wanted. It launched a consultation to allow a “sustainable scallop fishery” (dredging) to resume in large areas of the special area of conservation. At first the consultation was so badly worded that it gave respondents a free and fair choice between scallop dredging and scallop dredging. The questions were loaded in such a way that, whatever answer you gave, the government could claim it had support for its plans. On top of this, an electronic glitch in the online form magically changed people’s answers from no to yes.
Following protests, the consultation was withdrawn and relaunched, without the glitch and with a point of clarification to permit a more or less meaningful choice. The new consultation closes on Wednesday. It takes about a minute to complete.
There’s a wider issue here. The Cardigan Bay special area of conservation was created “to maintain its rich and varied marine life in at least as good a condition as when the site was first designated.” But when it was first designated it was in a shocking condition. Fish populations were greatly reduced and at least one species (the angel shark) was on the edge of extinction. Seafloor features had been ripped apart, and heaven knows what wider losses had been inflicted against an unknown baseline.
It’s as if a cathedral had been flattened by bombs, and the ambition of those charged with sustaining it was simply to keep it in its post-bombing condition. The disastrous ethos that governs the protection of many nature reserves on land – preserving the rubble of our devastated ecosystems rather than seeking to restore them – is now seeping into marine conservation.
This would form the basis of an interesting legal case, if anyone had the means to fund it. Special areas of conservation, under the European habitats directive, are supposed to “ensure the restoration or maintenance of natural habitats and species … at a favourable conservation status”. It says nothing about keeping them in the condition in which they were found.
When Jane Davidson was the environment minister, Wales could claim to have the greenest government in the UK. Now it competes with Northern Ireland to win the Golden Sewer award for environmental destruction. And if the dismal and ill-informed debate about scallop dredging in the Senedd in December is anything to go by, the assembly members seem incapable of holding the government to account.
So who will speak for the dolphins? For the seabed? For environmental law? For the principle that there should be some places on our god-forsaken planet that should not be torn apart for profit? You.
We have a last chance to ensure that our voices are heard, both by responding to the consultation (before Wednesday) and, by the same date, signing the petition to keep scallopers out this “strictly protected” area. Already it has attracted 26,000 signatures: an astonishing tally for an issue of this kind. The more who sign, the harder it will be for the government to abandon its responsibilities, by caving in to a tiny but disproportionately powerful industry.
If we cannot stop such destructive activities in a special area of conservation, what hope is there for nature in this country? If this is allowed to happen, nothing is safe.
Doctors have been left outraged by the health secretary Jeremy Hunt’s announcement that he plans to impose a new contract on junior doctors, despite strong opposition from many in the profession.
Hunt’s move came after the government failed to reach a deal with the British Medical Association (BMA), the union representing junior doctors. Since then the health secretary has defended his plans, blaming the BMA for inflaming the dispute.
So, with new contracts due to be introduced at the beginning of August, what will junior doctors do next? Is an all-out strike on the cards? Will some leave the profession? Or move away? Or perhaps there is some support for the move. Here’s what those on the frontline told us:
‘After 20 years, I am leaving over this’
Jeremy Hunt has shown utter disdain for not just the medical profession, but for nurses and paramedics too.
I am not in favour of an all-out strike; it would harm opinion of doctors who retain more public trust than politicians at present. My next move is to leave medicine – which is a huge shame as I have spent 20 years of my adult life training to be a super specialist in paediatric cardiac intensive care. But I have a family and more self respect than to accept an employer who treats me like a naughty schoolchild.
– Junior doctor, 37 from London
‘I am moving to Wales where the old contracts still exist’
The date 11 February 2016 was a calamitous one for the medical profession and the NHS in England. We had a contract imposed on us for the first time in our history, one which 98% of BMA members (who represent 37,000 of the 55,000 junior doctors in the UK) voted to strike against. It felt like my employer telling me, “You can either sign the contract or not work at all”.
Personally, I am going to move to Wales, where the old contract still exists. I know colleagues who are leaving the profession or going to Australia. In terms of choosing specialties, I have also decided not to become a medical registrar. This is the junior doctor who leads the medical team at nighttime and weekends, and who has responsibility for the care of typically 30 to 80 patients during a 12-hour shift. It is already, in my opinion, the hardest job in the hospital.
To think that they will be doing their antisocial hours for a significantly lower salary, and that the new contract removes existing safeguards to protect junior doctors from being overworked by hospitals, makes me no longer want to do this job.
– Junior doctor, 29 from south east London
‘I support an all-out strike’
In light of Mr Hunt’s contract imposition the BMA has to activate its own nuclear option. I suggest a five-day strike (9am-5pm – emergency cover only) followed by another five-day all-out strike if Mr Hunt does not accept the latest BMA offer. If this is not successful I would suggest a one week strike per month until the government is prepared to listen. This is a fight for patients and all NHS staff as this contract is only the beginning.
– Junior doctor, 39
‘Jeremy Hunt occupies the moral high ground here’
I am part of a cohort of trainees for whom the contract is an unambiguous benefit. I work office hours and my salary is determined solely by the level of basic pay. I do not receive a banding and so my salary is only two-thirds of that received by comparable trainees in clinical specialties.
The 13.5% pay increase is a step in the right direction. It begins to correct a longstanding imbalance in junior doctor pay. The previous contract gave too much weight to out-of-hours pay and the rate of basic pay was neglected. The fact that the rate of basic pay for newly qualified doctors is as low as £23,000 per year is a scandal, but it is a direct result of a previous generation’s decision to build up a pay package built around disproportionately well-rewarded out-of-hours work.
It saddens me that the only person prepared to defend the interests of doctors like me was the secretary of state. I am opposed to the unilateral imposition of a contract, but on balance, given the same circumstances, faced with an intransigent and belligerent group of well-to-do doctors, who sadly seem incapable of defending the interests of their least well-paid colleagues, I would have done exactly the same. Hunt occupies the moral high ground here.
– Junior doctor, 30
‘I might go and teach in a private school’
Many of us felt the strain on our health and our families was too great, and were already considering leaving. We thought the health secretary realised this, and were naively expecting a big thank you for keeping the NHS afloat and delivering a first class health service under desperate conditions.
My next plan is to either go to New Zealand or leave medicine altogether and go and teach in a private school. I have an Oxbridge PhD and teaching experience.
– Junior doctor, 33
‘I hope the BMA lets its members vote on the new contracts’
It is unfortunate that the contract is being imposed without reaching full agreement. However the proposed new contract as a whole has many positive changes – and it is clear that the talks with the BMA have been productive despite the remaining few sticking points that were not agreed upon prior to the imposition.
I am not thinking of leaving at this stage but think the BMA should now allow members to take in the proposals and then poll to gauge the response.
– Junior doctor, 26 from Lemington Spa
‘I came from Pakistan and never dreamed I’d face this here’
I came from Pakistan to the UK in June 2014 to join the NHS with lots of goodwill and hope that I would be treated fairly. In Pakistan doctors have no infrastructure for their pay scale or any protection over working hours. This is the reason Pakistani doctors have to strike every now and then for their rights. I never ever dreamed that in the UK I would face the same situation. Sorry to say but it’s even more disgusting here that I am striking for not an increment of pay but against a decrement. It’s a shame for the UK.
– Junior doctor, 34 from Carshalton
‘As a medical student I am already thinking of leaving’
What terrifies me is that experienced medical professionals in England have now lost the right to some sense of justly earned influence, and I am simply not prepared to spend the rest of my working life at the whim of short sighted ideology, dependent only on prevailing economic winds and political priorities.
What should terrify the Guardianistas is that I am by no means alone. Morale among my cohort of students is at rock bottom. I suppose that we are fortunate not to to be stuck halfway through 10 years of specialty training and to have many options still open, but I would posit that it is those of us with other options that the NHS really needs to keep.
– Medical student, 28 from London
The NHS is on the brink of disaster. It has never been under such financial pressure. But, argues Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee, there is nothing wrong with it that cannot be put right with more money – and that means each of us, not just the very richest, telling politicians that we are prepared to pay more for a cradle-to-grave health service
One of the young women in the house was an alcoholic, she must have been 17 and her mental health had deteriorated. Drinking was not allowed at the house, which she knew, but she went out one night to a pub and drank. She came back after the rest of us had gone to bed. We only found out the next day that the staff had refused to let her back in the house. It was January and this young women slept outside, she had nowhere else to go.
That experience made me incredibly angry, but when you’ve been diagnosed with a mental health problem people stop listening to you. This young women had no one to complain to and though the rest of us complained, we were told it was being “managed”. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the only example of poor staff conduct that I witnessed.
– Anonymous, 27, from London
On 8 March it is International Women’s Day, the annual celebration of women everywhere.
To do this we are calling on female readers to tell us about what they perceive to be the biggest challenges women face where they live.
Get involved by filling in the form below.
I started gambling pretty much as soon as I turned 18. I got hooked on the idea of in-play betting: keeping tabs on a game as it was going through and betting on the next game, based on statistics provided by the company. The odds here are low (evens usually) but by putting on big money you can win a lot. You can also lose a lot; sometimes I was losing £200 a night, in three bets.
I hid this from my family and my friends, at one point I even slept at the bottom of the stairs for a week so I could get to the post before my parents to hide my bank statement from them.
My parents did eventually find out. My father couldn’t understand why I was so keen to listen to the Grand National, and why I was so happy with the result (I won £210 on it). Having been aware that I was gambling, but not the horrific extent of it, he demanded to see my bank accounts. That’s when I broke down into tears and confessed everything. My parents lost trust in me, but they were and are very supportive. I am now proudly a year clean.
More information needs to be circulated about gambling because young people, like myself, can easily start without realising the gravity of what they are doing.
- Anonymous student, 20 from Newcastle-upon-Tyne
Areview suggests that giving expectant mothers in England a personal maternity budget of £3,000 (to be spent on their chosen care) could help make childbirth safer.
It follows an investigation into problems at Furness hospital, part of the University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS foundation trust, where failures in care may have played a part in the deaths of three mothers and 16 babies.
We want to hear about your experiences of maternity care services around the world. What is the biggest maternity care issue where you live? How could services be improved? Are you supportive of a personal budget in England? Tell us by filling in the form below.
Kathleen Kerridge’s family food budget is £40 per week – to feed five people. She says there is a big gap between the public perception of poverty and what it means for people like her. We should stop talking about poverty, she argues, until we know what being poor in this country really means