Making a good Parliament: Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow visits Birkbeck

Dr Ben Worthy from the Department of Politics discusses a recent lecture at the Centre for the Study of British Politics and Public Life, which welcomed the Rt Hon John Bercow MP, Speaker of the House of Commons. His lecture was titled, “Parliament as Pathfinder: Changing the culture of an ancient institution”.

How can Parliament be reformed? The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, took time out from imposing order on MPs to tell a packed audience of Birkbeck students how he intends to do it.

Since his election in 2009, the Speaker has made his name as someone who wants to make Parliament a different place and the Commons is undoubtedly different as a result. When Bercow became Speaker, Parliament famously had a shooting gallery but no creche. In his speech he pointed to some of his successes, including allowing children through the voting lobby. However, as he said, more needs to be done.

Drawing on, (or in his words, ‘shamelessly plagiarising’), the Good Parliament report by Birkbeck’s own Professor Sarah Childs, the Speaker addressed the principles around which any future change needs to be built.

Change is not just about tinkering with the rules of an institution but about transforming the culture inside to make sure reforms really happen. Any reforms need to be made along several dimensions at once, a mixture of ensuring equal participation, altering the infrastructure and changing the culture.

Although passion and even anger can be normal parts of political discourse, he emphasised the need for MPs to be treated with respect. He also pointed out the importance of making Parliament a more diverse place, a vital democratic principle in itself when, for example, women make up 32% of the MPs in the Commons but 52% of the population – it’s good, but not good enough considering the average voter is likely to be a woman.

Opening up Parliament, he pointed out, is also a way of broadening the views, ideas and experience coming into the House of Commons, and he highlighted the work of Tan Dhesi, the first turbaned Sikh in the House of Commons.

The Speaker ended by making the point that change was also about the culture around politics and how it was reported. Prime Minister’s Questions, while a vital public event, sometimes gives the public the wrong impression of the work of the House and the atmosphere inside. He highlighted his commitment to make the lobby who report on Parliament at least 40% female by 2020.

So, as one audience member asked, will it work? The Speaker argued that without cultural change, no other reforms will really ‘stick’, as ‘culture eats strategy’. But he felt that at a time of unhappiness with elites, and a desire for making things different, the House of Commons was readier for change than it had ever been.

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Constitutions, committees and campaigns: an evening at the Birkbeck Students’ Union AGM

Sean Fitzpatrick, Communications Coordinator for Birkbeck’s Students’ Union, gives a run-down of the most recent Annual General Meeting (AGM) – and invites current students to stand in the elections as Liberation Officers and Student Leaders.

A lot has been going on across the Students’ Union this academic year – so much, in fact, we had to have two Annual General Meetings.

Every Birkbeck Student is welcome to come along to our AGM. Everyone is welcome to vote on any issues that arise at the meeting. This is one of the many ways that we make sure everything we do is informed by what students tell us they want.

With one of the largest attendances of the past decade, we settled down for an evening of discussion on all things Birkbeck. First up was officer accountability, where attendees were invited to grill the elected Student Leaders and Liberation Officers on their work, poring over their officer reports and manifestos to make sure they’re doing everything that they said they’d do!

Incidentally, we’re looking for people who would be interested in being one of our paid Liberation Officers and Student Leaders for the 2018/19 academic year. If you’re interested – you can read more about our elections and put your name forward on our website.

We then had a brief run through the current financial state of the Students’ Union, where students can see where our funding comes from and how we’re spending it – it’s important for us to be transparent. We then ran through changes to our constitution, the core document that defines the Union’s ethos and purpose. All of the changes were put to the room, and students voted either in favour or against each proposed change. Once that was done, we continued our discussions at the George Bar on the fourth floor of Birkbeck’s Malet Street building, right next to the Students’ Union offices.

Our AGMs are a great introduction to how the Students’ Union works and how we can work to support Birkbeck students. They also give you an opportunity to vote on how the Students’ Union uses its resources and to bring any issues you feel are affecting students to our attention.

If you have anything you feel the Students’ Union can help you with, please contact us! We’re here to help you make the most of your time at Birkbeck. Get in touch by messaging us on Facebook or Twitter, or by emailing us at studentsunion@bbk.ac.uk

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Female imprisonment worldwide

Catherine Heard reflects on Female Imprisonment Worldwide, a recent event organised by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research. Listen to highlights from the speakers’ presentations on Birkbeck’s podcast.

Why this event? A rapidly increasing global female prison population

At ICPR we compile and host the World Prison Brief, a unique online resource that provides free access to the best available data on prisoner numbers in almost every country on the globe. This gives us a bird’s eye view of important trends in world prisoner numbers, which have been rising steadily in recent decades – particularly the numbers of women prisoners, as our World Female Imprisonment List (4th Edition) shows.

Numbers of women prisoners are rising in every continent, with significant increases reported in developed as well as less developed countries. This matters, not least because of the very high levels of vulnerability we know exist among women who get caught up in criminal justice processes. Women and girls in prison usually come from backgrounds of disadvantage and are likely to have experienced trauma, abuse, neglect or mental ill health before their imprisonment.

This event brought together experts in female imprisonment from around the world to discuss some of the causes and consequences of rising female prisoner numbers.

The scale and profile of female prison populations

Our keynote speaker was prison philanthropist Lady Edwina Grosvenor. Edwina has worked in criminal justice reform for more than 20 years. Perhaps her most ground-breaking contribution has been to advance the field of trauma-informed practice in the women’s custodial system in the UK.

Next, we heard from Roy Walmsley, who founded the World Prison Brief in 2000 and who compiles the population lists. Roy presented key data from the fourth edition of ICPR’s World Female Imprisonment List. There followed a presentation from Olivia Rope of Penal Reform International, an organisation that has contributed much to creating and promoting basic standards of decent, humane treatment for women and girls in custody. Olivia talked about some of the most common characteristics of women prisoners and explained why gender-informed approaches to women in criminal justice systems are so important.

Over-incarceration of women: drivers, harms and solutions
Marie Nougier from the International Drugs Policy Consortium then presented on the work they and members of their network have been doing to change the conversation around female drug offending, a major driver of the rapid rise in women prisoner numbers. View slide presentation here. 

Our next speaker, Teresa Njoroge had just given a TED talk in the United States, so we were all the more honoured to welcome her. Teresa heads up the NGO, Clean Start Kenya, which works with women and girls in Kenyan prisons. Teresa shared with us her own experience as an inmate in a Kenyan prison, spending a year in horrendous and needlessly humiliating conditions. She said many women never fully recover from the experience of prison in Kenya and in that sense their punishment lasts much longer than the term of custody they are sentenced to serve. View slide presentation here.

We then welcomed Madhurima Dhanuka from the Commonwealth Human Rights Institute in India. Madhurima’s presentation brought into sharp focus one hugely avoidable cause of high prisoner numbers – that is, the overuse of pre-trial imprisonment, a major problem in India. Madhurima also described the psychological damage prison causes many women, with awful conditions of custody followed too often by social isolation on release when their families abandon women due to the shame they are seen to have brought. View slide presentation here. 

Our last speaker was Jo Peden from the health and justice team at Public Health England. Jo has been working on a project to develop woman centred standards of health-care for female prisoners, something that is sadly lacking in too many prisons today. Jo’s presentation shed light on the alarmingly high rates of suicide and self-harm seen among women prisoners and the underlying vulnerabilities that they bring with them into custody. View slide presentation here. 

After the presentations, we had an open discussion with our audience. We were lucky enough to have Juliet Lyon CBE with us to chair this session. Juliet is now a visiting professor at Birkbeck. Prior to this, she was for many years the director of the Prison Reform Trust, which has long promoted better understanding of the needs of women prisoners and advocated to downsize the female prison population. Juliet reflected with honesty and a sense of sadness about the distance there remains to travel in achieving justice for women affected by the criminal justice system. If you listen to my podcast on the event, you can hear Juliet’s concluding thoughts on the presentations.

Where does female imprisonment fit within our world prison research programme?

Women prisoners are predominantly incarcerated for minor, non-violent, property or drug-related crimes, and are often primary carers for one or more children or older family members. This surely suggests that the economic and social costs of imprisoning women will, in most cases, outweigh the supposed benefits. That should prompt us to look more carefully at whom we imprison and ask, in every case, why we imprison and what we expect prison to achieve.

Our prisons research at ICPR aims to do just this. It seeks to bring about a deeper understanding of the many interwoven factors that combine to drive up prisoner numbers. We are doing this so that we can come up with some concrete, practical solutions to these harmful and unsustainable increases in the imprisonment levels of recent decades. We know that in order to do this, we must provide a better account of who it is that our states choose to imprison, and why.

This is a key goal of our current project, Understanding and reducing the use of imprisonment worldwide. The project entails an in-depth exploration of imprisonment in ten jurisdictions across all five continents. Those countries are: Kenya, South Africa, Brazil, the United States, India, Thailand, England & Wales, Hungary, the Netherlands and Australia. Among these are countries with some of the largest prison populations in the world: the USA, Brazil, India and Thailand are all in the top six globally. Most of these countries have seen very significant increases in their female prison populations since 2000. You can learn more about the project here.

  • Catherine Heard is director of ICPR’s World Prison Research Programme. Catherine has also recorded a podcast on the event, with audio content from each of the speakers’ presentations.
  • Speakers’ short biographical details can be found here. 
  • ICPR would like to thank all our speakers for their contributions to this event.
  • We are grateful to Clifford Chance for their generosity in hosting the event.
  • ICPR’s World Prison Research Programme is funded by Open Society Foundations.
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Fixing the economy: rebuilding macroeconomics

First year BSc Economics student Lydia Evans provides a recap of an event organised by Birkbeck’s Economics + Finance Society, at which Dr Angus Armstrong introduced the new research network he directs.

The story is infamous: the Queen visits the London School of Economics and asks why no one saw the recent global financial crisis coming. Angus Armstrong believes that it’s not that people didn’t see a catastrophe on the horizon, “it’s that the institutions almost didn’t want to listen to them”. Raghuram Rajan, Joseph Stiglitz and others attempted to warn the world that a seismic shock was going to take place. The main question is how have we moved forward? Armstrong thinks that the financial world has not, it continues to choose willful ignorance. He directs a new network that wants to re-evaluate the entrenched economic models and the collective consciousness of those who use them.

Rebuilding Macroeconomics, a network of economists and academics, are attempting research that is disruptive, not immune to failure but genuinely independent to ask uncomfortable questions. The key to the efficacy of this research is how it is sourced. The network’s blueprint is set out as three tributaries: Discovery Meetings, Research Hubs, and Pilot Projects. Discovery Meetings are notable for their inclusivity. They seek to attract people from all backgrounds to discuss the most important macroeconomic questions. These discussions lead to fresh insights and methodologies to be examined by policy-makers and scholars in the Research Hubs. The most promising ideas turn into pilot projects. The network is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and hosted by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research.

Does the UK really need such reformatory research? He finds something “profoundly wrong” when a country as rich as the UK requires food banks to feed some of its population. Government debt is 90% of GDP. The Bank of England is only able to claim pyrrhic victories. It may hit its inflation target but other economic measures are in turmoil. Mark Carney has himself confessed that 95% of the movement in interest rates is determined by international events.  Current interest rates may not be what the UK actually needs them to be. Armstrong feels that the established institutions are reliant upon Knut Wicksell’s Rocking Horse. Whatever the instability, the assumption is that the status quo will always return. This is no longer the reality and nothing has been done about it. The failure is intellectual, not regulatory, and economists must be brave enough to confront the zeitgeist.

When Armstrong returned from study in America and expressed his wish to research financial crises, he was told that these were a problem only for the developing world. He mentions a new paper in the Journal of Economic Perspectives, considering how those who disagree with the mainstream in Economics are labelled dilettantes. Is the discipline consumed by an ill-conceived adherence to orthodoxy? Not all new ideas are worthy but it’s difficult to ignore a belligerent spirit against outliers. Whatever the future holds, Armstrong is not alone in arguing that the existing economic paradigm must urgently be confronted.

Further information

 

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