Letter To The Foreign Secretary: The Response

A few weeks ago, I sent a letter to William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, raising concerns over the Russian anti-LGBTQ laws, and how they would affect those traveling to the Olympics, among others. The text of that letter can be found here. I also forwarded my letter to my MP, Tessa Jowell, who promised to raise the issue with the appropriate people, and pass any responses on to me.

This morning I got a letter from Dame Tessa Jowell which included a letter sent to her by the Minister for Europe, Rt Hon. David Lidington MP. I’ve written up the text below:

Dear Tessa,

Thank you for your letter of 9 August, to the Foreign Secretary, on behalf of your constituent [me, but I’m not posting my address] about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights in Russia. I am replying as Minister responsible for Russia.

The new Russian law which prohibits the promotion of “non-traditional sexual relations” could in effect prevent LGBT people from fully enjoying the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.

We have repeatedly raised our concerns about the growing restrictions on LGBTQ freedoms in Russia, including at the 2013 UK-Russia Human Rights dialogue in May. We also raise concerns with the Russian government at political level. The Prime Minister most recently outlined our human rights concerns with President Putin in June, and I regularly raise cases of concern in my dialogue with the Russian Deputy Foreign Minister.

We want to see an open and inclusive games at the Sochi Winter Olympics 2014 but do not support a boycott. We have a better chance of influencing Russia by speaking to them and challenging prejudices as we attend, rather than through a boycott.

Our government is working with the International Olympic Committee and the British Olympic Association to ensure that the games take place in the spirit of the Olympic Charter and remain free of discrimination.

We have updated our travel advice on Russia to inform British nationals of the new law. We review this advice regularly and will update further as necessary.

It would be a crime in Russian law if any unlawful activities were carried out on an individual and we would expect the Russian authorities to fully investigate any such incidents.

Human rights form an important part of the UK-Russia relationship and we will continue to pay close attention to developments in this area, and take further opportunities to urge Russian to demonstrate that it is governed by the rule of law and respects human rights.

The Rt Hon David Lidington MP

Pretty much the response I was expecting. But it is at least a start. I’m considering sending Mr Lidington a further response, but we’ll have to wait and see.


Russian Anti-LGBTQ Laws: Letter Sent to Foreign Secretary

Dear Mr Hague,
In your role as Foreign Secretary, I am sure that you are aware of the current human rights violations that are going on in Russia, and the brutal and systematic assault on the rights of LGBTQ individuals, purely because of their sexuality or gender identity. In case you have somehow missed it, here are a couple of reminders of what has been going on: first from Business Insider, from Buzzfeed and finally from the New York Times (I’ve put the full length links at the bottom of this letter in case there is an issue with linking through the FCO email system).

I would like to know why the UK government has drawn little attention to what is happening, and how come there has not been international condemnation of the actions of the Russian government, and calls for President Putin to revoke laws which will not only criminalise being a gay Russian, but will also make it possible for the Russian police to arrest anyone, of any nationality, they suspect of being LGBTQ. Why has the UK government said nothing? Would you keep similarly silent were this a law making it illegal to be Jewish or Black, or is it just because the victims of these hateful, bigoted, narrow-minded laws are LGBTQ that it is less of a hate crime?

Or, as I suspect, is it that the UK, as much of Europe does, relies on gas and oil from Russia, and the government will give the Russian government carte-blanche to abuse the human rights of their citizens, just as long as they don’t turn off the taps?

Furthermore, what is the government’s advice with regards to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi?Is advice being given that LGBTQ people ought not to travel, so that the consular section in Moscow doesn’t have to deal with people being arrested purely because of their sexuality? Again, if these laws had a different focus, would you be advising black people not to attend, “for their own safety”?

Finally, I am appalled at the “joint UK-Russia Year of Culture in 2014.” How is it that this government can be comfortable saying that we wish to celebrate our joint culture with a country that has begun such a brutal crackdown on the rights and safety of LGBTQ people? This is an embarrassment to the UK, and I strongly urge you to reconsider this partnership.

The double standard that is being expressed simply by your silence on the matter is chilling, and it is disturbing to think that the UK would stand by while people are beaten, brutalised and murdered because of their sexuality.

Given that the UK recently legalised same-sex marriages (despite the efforts of some of your own back benchers to portray gay people as child molesters and on a par with people who have sex with animals) I would have expected you, as Foreign Secretary, to represent this country properly in terms of standing up for LGBTQ people both in the UK and abroad.

I hope to hear back from you on this issue, and I hope that the government will take proper and appropriate action against human rights abuses against LGBTQ people in Russia.

Yours sincerely,

Adam Sheppard.


Links as mentioned above:

1. Business Insider Article: http://www.businessinsider.com/horrific-russia-gay-bullying-video-goes-viral-2013-7

2. Buzzfeed Article: http://www.buzzfeed.com/mjs538/this-is-what-happens-when-you-write-about-homophobia-in-russ

3. NY Times Article: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/22/opinion/russias-anti-gay-crackdown.html

Expected. Still a shame.

My old college, Rose Bruford has announced its Tuition Fees for 2012. They will be charging the maximum 9,000 for degree courses. I cannot say I that I am really all that surprised, given how lowly Higher Education in the Arts seems to be valued by the current government. It is still a shame though.

I can understand the college’s reasons behind charging these fees – through a combination of the tough position that the cut in HE subsidy has placed on the finance department, and through a desire to not be seen as a ‘lesser institution’ by charging less than the competition (for context, Central School of Speech & Drama has also announced that it will be charging 9,000 a year). These circumstances may mean that this is the right decision for the College, but it is the wrong decision for students.

My fear is that the increase in fees will put off students. The refrain that is mentioned in reference to the Arts is that it in an industry you work in for the love, not for the money. This may be true, but finishing training in thousands of pounds of debt may deter talented prospective students from applying. I paid a maximum of 3,250 a year for my tuition at Rose Bruford, and recently received a letter from the Student Loans Company informing me that I currently owed them somewhere in the region of 26,000. I am starting a Masters in October that has tuition fees of 8,400 and for full time study I need to be able to pay around 25,000 over the year to cover living costs, rent, repayments, food, travel and other expenses. Assuming that there are some expenses I am accruing that will not be faced by undergraduate students, it is possible that a Stage Management graduate – like myself – who graduates in 2015 could be leaving College with a debt of 40,000 from the three years of training. When a Stage Manager can earn somewhere around 450 a week, it makes that debt, before interest and other expenses (like rent and food) seem quite intimidating. I do not want to see talented, driven individuals who could contribute to one of the most profitable and valuable industries in the UK, to be put off applying through fear of the debt that they will be placing themselves under. With cuts to Arts Council budgets and a government desire to support the Arts through philanthropy, the uncertainty faced by recent graduates makes spending 9,000 a year just on tuition seem an even more substantial risk.

College will still need to take in the same number of students in order to balance the budgets. With some students being prevented from looking for places because of their financial situation, will there be a need to accept less talented, skilled and inspired students so that the money keeps coming in? I hope that this does not happen, because not only will it reduce the quality of the graduates that College is training, but with several drama schools being in a similar situation, will there be a lower standard of graduates entering the industry.

If, and this is a very large if, this does come to pass then the ability of the industry to continue to produce quality product will come into question, and this would then have an effect on the contribution that the Arts can make to culture, and to the amount of income generated in the direction of the Treasury. I do not want to see a shrinking of the artistic spectrum caused by the reliance on philanthropy and having to justify to wealthy benefactors that a production is a good idea – and I think that this potential over-commercialisation of the industry could lead to less risk taking and less invention. I also do not want to see the range of product on offer to be limited through a lack of talent. This would not be too evident for the first few years, as the older generation will still be there, but if there is a reduction in the talent pool then in the long term the variety of output could also be reduced, as groups and individuals may not have the abilities needed to create a wider, more varied range of productions.

I hope that it does not come to this, and I do think that these are worst case scenarios, and I hope many of those applying for places in 2012 will be doing it out of love for what they do, and will take their places in spite of the financial burden that they will be placed under. If ability to afford the tuition becomes the defining factor in prospective students decisions, then I think there could be trouble.

I guess we will have to wait and see.

A view on the anti-cuts movement

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I have attended several of the anti-cuts marches, demonstrations and events, from the protests against tuition fee increases to the march through London on January 29th.  At these events I have seen people from a variety of social groups, ages, races, but all united in their passion to defend themselves and their friends from the swinging axe of Tory ideology. However, the march at the end of last month was nowhere near as large as those in November and December. I do not think that there is a loss of opposition to what the government are doing, but I do fear that there might be a lack of direction, which is damaging the effectiveness of the movement
My approach to what is happening to this country is well served by this statement, attributed to either Harry S. Truman or Woody Allen: “Decisions are made by those who show up”. That is what we must now do. Show up. Show up by pressuring those in power, those who are cutting vital services with no consideration for the damage, pain and suffering that the loss of those services will cause, for example cutting benefits so that benefit cheats can no longer choose it as a “lifestyle”. Never mind all those who need those benefits because they cannot find a job, and have families to feed. Never mind hacking into public services, citing inefficiency, then setting unrealistic targets of expenditure reduction, when those most likely to be made redundant are not high-paid managers, but their subordinates. These ideological attacks on the public sector, on education, healthcare and the welfare state must be opposed. Here I will try to explain my personal opinion on how best we can go about doing so.
Every protest, march and event needs to have a clearly articulated message. Make sure that, as much as possible, everyone who is at the event is able to explain to passers by and observers what it is that they are fighting for. The tax avoidance protests by UKUncut is an example of how well this can work. People who see a protest are not always aware what it is about, and a number of them are shocked by what they find out, after we tell them about it. This needs to be spread to every event that is targeted at a government cut, or tax avoiders, or at a policy that will threaten the futures of a generation.
If people think that we are just there because we are young and want to make noise or cause them problems, we are failing to articulate our message – that these cuts affect more than just us. We need to get everyday people on the street to feel like they can get involved. Wanting to stand up against these cuts is not a feeling restricted only to those under 25. There are people of all ages who agree with what we are saying, and should not be ostracised because of their age. If they do not want to march with us, urge them to contact their MP, or to talk to their friends. We need to be seen to be standing up for everyone. The student protests against tuition fee rises was dismissed by far too many people as just being students annoyed at having to pay more. We need to spread the message that we are not just looking out for ourselves but looking out for others.
In terms of how to do this, when I went to the rally points for the marches I was handed several leaflets by various groups, SWP, Militant Student, Socialist Resistance among others. Often this is latched onto by the media as a reason to ignore us, or to say that it is just the radical left who are opposing what is happening. I think that we need to be able to produce leaflets that we can hand out to people who are watching us. This may require more expenditure, which I know will be tough, but it must be more than just different groups within the movement, looking inwards to those already on the streets. If we can get more information out to people, then they can form their own opinions. They may not agree with the action we take, but they might agree with why we are doing it. This is not a bad thing. There is not one way of protesting, and the variety of types of protests will keep up interest, and allow people to express themselves in a way that they are comfortable with. Not everyone wants to stand outside in the cold shouting for seven hours – and if they have an alternative way to get their opinion heard, then that is no bad thing.
Specificity must also come into play. At these events it must be clear what we are there for. It must not just be “we are anti-cuts”, it must be “we are anti THESE cuts, and here is why it affects YOU”. This will help us to demonstrate that we are not just looking for ourselves, and also mean that one of the politicians’ arguments will not be effective. During the protests against tuition fee increase, Nick Clegg said repeatedly that the protesters ‘did not understand’ what the government is doing. If we can demonstrate to people on the street, as well as whatever media we can talk to, that we do understand what the government is doing, and why we are opposing it, then that will be a good step towards gaining some level of respect.
We can also put pressure on the police to stop their violent attempts at suppressing our opinions. We have already had some highly negative experiences at their hands, from kettling people on Westminster Bridge to using CS spray on a peaceful protest. These are problems that we must address and make noise about in their own right. Where we must take a step forward is in engagement with the rank and file police. They will be losing over 10,000 front line officers when the cuts hit them. If they strike, march or protest we ought to be there with them. This may be hard to stomach, especially if you have been through the experience of being kettled before, but it is part of the message that we are looking out for more than just ourselves, and the police spend the majority of their time doing good work. Many of the rank and file police, including one British Transport Police officer I talked with at London Bridge station after the march on the 29th, support us, and what we are doing. They have more in common with us than with the likes of Sir Hugh Orde. If we can get them as onside as possible I believe it will help us.
That being said, we need to keep up pressure on the upper levels of police command to stop kettling at the larger events, as we all know that it will make the situation worse – it derives from the German word ‘kessel’, meaning ‘cauldron’. With the potential of ‘more extreme’ tactics being used against us, it is vital that we keep the pressure on the police to avoid brutality. It is also hugely important that as many people as possible at every event are able to record, film or photograph what is going on, especially police actions. They have their F.I.T. groups, so why can’t we have our own? They are much less confident of being able to push us around when they are on camera. Maintain, or even better, increase the level of evidence we have against what they are doing, and we will be able to show that we are not the aggressors, as it is often suggested in the media. We also have the support of some excellent legal people, and if they are involved in helping one of us, the more evidence the better. We can make it too hard for the police to bully us into submission, and too hard for the ‘small group intent on violence’ narrative from being trotted out by the government yet again. Yes there are small groups whose intention is to cause problems, but we need to make it clear that they are not part of our movement, and we do not support their actions.
It is also important that there are not only large-scale marches through London, but also small, targeted events focussed on local issues, local cuts and local problems. An example of this was the sit-ins in libraries all over the country to show how valuable they are to their communities. While the loss of libraries will affect people all over the country, the protest was at a local level, showing not just a general opposition to library cuts, but giving a human face to those who will be affected by the cut in their own community. The big society is meant to be about local communities taking responsibility, and this is where I think the movement needs to look next, at local community related actions, which will not only show how widespread the problems are, but also show that opposition does not just come from those holding banners and shouting their way through Parliament Square, but also those in towns and city councils across the country who will lose out on vital services, all in the name of budgeting.
If there are more local actions then it will also be possible to put more pressure on local councillors and local MPs, as they will have to see the faces of the people they are affecting, and not just watch a mass crowd outside Parliament via their televisions. They will have to justify to real people why they are hacking into the communities that they themselves are a part of, and why they are cutting services that people they know might use. Give a face to those affected by local cuts, give a voice to the opposition to local cuts and make councillors and MPs have to respond to real people who are really affected, and not just comfort themselves by thinking in abstracts and financial figures – and it is much tougher to vilify someone who wants to read a book than it is a student spray-painting a statue.
The final reason that we must embrace local protest is that they make it much more possible for the disabled to make their voice heard. The DLA cuts did not receive anywhere near as much press and publicity as other government actions, and part of this, I believe, is down to it being harder for those affected to make as much noise as those who are able to stand, sing and shout for hours on end. Many of the disabled, and those who provide them with care and assistance, will be hit hard by this government’s plans, and yet there is nowhere near the appropriate level of representation from that group. We must ensure that our actions are as accessible as possible for everyone, and local, closer to home events can help, since it will cut down on the effort and expense of travelling into a city centre, which can be exhausting before you even get there.
It is vital to ensure the government are made aware how wide-ranging the opposition their cuts are. Therefore it is important that we make sure our actions are as varied, informative and inclusive as possible. We can make our voices heard, and the voices of everyone who will be punished by this governments attack on the public sector, charities, communities, and everyone who is not as wealthy and privileged as them.

We can build this anti-cuts movement. The feelings are there, we must make sure that people do not become disillusioned with what is happening. It is vital to encourage people to get involved, and build momentum towards March 26th.

“It is not the function of our government to keep the citizen from falling into error; it is the function of the citizen to keep the government from falling into error.” – Robert H. Jackson

Is the ecomony like your penis?

So it seems we can add a couple more things to the list of ‘forces of stagnation’ that Gideon is blaming for the economy being in bad shape – the opposition (who, surprise surprise, are opposing radical free market solutions to problems caused by unregulated free markets – here is an idea, get tax avoiders to pay their way), and the unions (who are not on strike, and are discussing strike action in opposition to cuts that might leave their members relying on benefits and government help that are about to be cut with maniacal speed by the ruling class).
This is only a few days after he blamed the last quarter’s economic shrinkage on the snow. Little piece of information for you Gideon: the economy isn’t like your penis – it doesn’t shrink because it is snowing. The thing is, when the impact of the snow has been factored in, the economy was flat. No growth, no shrinking, nothing. Still doesn’t look good does it. This is before the cuts start to hit. This was before the rise in VAT, and this was over Christmas, when people are meant to spend, spend, spend – especially knowing that many things would be cheaper before January (I did that, buying several books and DVDs because I knew I wouldn’t be able to afford them if they were any more expensive). Now, I am no economist, so I cannot comment on the ins and outs of the markets etc, but surely if you have high levels of snow, then things that are used to deal with snow, such as boots, salt, snow plows or sledges might have seen something of a boost in sales. And lets be honest, it’s not as if it didn’t happen last year – the economy didn’t shrink then. It happened the year before too, when things were in the toilet economically, and still no shrinkage. Maybe it is time to stop blaming things on the weather (listen to the Met Office, they are not too bad at the whole weather thing). Either that, or stop making excuses.

Previous thoughs on tuition fees

This is something I’ve had sitting around in a notebook for a while now, having originally written it around the back end of November, before the tuition fee changes were made. Just for a bit more context, I wrote this while sitting in a Starbucks at Fulham Broadway station, waiting for my dad to turn up for our tradition pre-match Nandos, before going to Stamford Bridge. I pretty much proceeded to ramble through most of what I wrote with my dad, which is when I discovered that he was a bit more of a lefty than he lets on, a nice surprise I’m sure you will all agree.

This may make it seem a bit dated (I will add some reflective bits, but it is pretty much directly from my book to here) but I wanted to put it out there anyway, in particular the idea of alternate ways to raise money, as an alternative to cuts and heaping debt onto the people rather than the government. Here goes:

“Oh, so the first protests of the coalition have happened. Only took a few months. Solid work guys. What makes this even more impressive from a Lib-Dem point of view is that it was from one of the groups that supported them – the students.

Now, I’ll come back to that in a minute, but first I have to admit that I wasn’t at the demo this morning [the first of the main anti-tuition fee demonstrations] or at the clashes that followed – and I’ll let others discuss whether or not the escalation and police response helped or not. What happened later in the day must not be allowed to detract from is is the real reason so many people marched in the first place [despite the best efforts of the media, and the police].

Back on point: many who are either out of university, or have never attended, have chosen to describe students within the stereotype of lazy cheapskates who drink and party and stagger into the light several years later with a piece of paper and still no idea what they are doing. While some of that does happen, and there are some people who stay at uni as long as possible so to avoid having to grow up, I have also met plenty of students, both at RBC and other schools, who are hardworking, driven people, fully aware of the amount of debt they are accruing, but willing to take on that burden so that they can follow their ambition, their dream or their passion. For example at Bruford, I did not meet a single person who decided to go through the audition process to become an actor just for kicks, or for the fun of it and the social life – they did it because they want to become actors. The idea that budget cuts from privileged ideologues leave a solid number of graduates unable to pursue their chosen career is a travesty.

What is even worse than that situation, worse than the potential for further cuts, worse than Conservatives in parliament cheering at the Chancellor’s gleeful attacks on those who need the states help more than anyone else, worse than all of that is the arrogance of politicians who attended universities at a time when it cost them nothing, deciding that in order to continue your academic career you have to have been born into, or raised into, money. Education ought to be a right afforded to every citizen, not a privileged for those who can afford it. This kind of policy may well have been feared from a Tory administration, but what is hard to swallow is their Lib-Dem appendages. That those very same Lib-Dems actively campaigned on a pledge to fight rises in tuition fees is all the more shocking. I’m sorry Mr Clegg, but saying that it is one of those things that gets lost as part of a coalition just doesnt wash. If it is something that you might possibly consider compromising on, don’t make it the cornerstone of your election campaign – you have successfully ruined any chance your party had at being ‘the honest party’. Not only have you lied but you have gone against what your own party once believed in. Why else would one of your PPCs join Labour and cite that as one of their main reasons? You have sold out, you have sold out your party, and you have sold out many of the people who once believed in you. All so you could sit at the top table. Congratulations.

Leaving aside the lack of progressiveness in the Coalition plans for education funding, what is also surprising is the short term-ism that their policy demonstrates. This is shown by this: if you pay for people to be educated, then the theory goes that they get into higher paying jobs. This means they earn more money. When they have higher income, they are taxed a higher amount than those on lower incomes [that is the theory at least, though with the HMRC collection issues and the tax avoidance unchecked there are some problems]. The only problem with this theory is that it takes a generation to come into play, and it appears that this government is not looking for the long term benefit for the nation, rather the short term benefits for the few.

In the current climate of deficit reduction, and with absolutely no schooling in economics, so I appreciate I may miss some details, here is my alternative idea: add 2% onto income tax. This may seem regressive, and its hard to get elected by raising taxes, but hear me out. In order to counteract the impact this would have on lower income households, I also propose a raising of the tax-free allowances., so that for those less fortunate, the higher rate is paid on a smaller percentage of their earnings. I think that they would be able to save money, and also, hopefully, some of those families who need benefits in order to make ends meet might be less needy of them. But like I said, I have no grounding in economics, and may just be being naive.”

So that is what I wrote back in November. Some of it is a little dated, and with the looming impact of the disability benefits cuts, it seems like something of a moot point. But if you have made it this far, well done, and apologies for taking up so much of your time.