Wildlife winners and losers in Britain’s summer heatwave

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Smiles all round for Britain’s adders. Shutterstock

Paul Ashton, Edge Hill University

George Orwell, upon returning from Spain in June 1937, remarked that what made England distinctive was the green of its landscape. Anyone currently making this same journey could be forgiven for thinking they were still on holiday, as the endless weeks of hot and dry weather have combined to produce a countryside as parched as that of the Mediterranean.

Flora and fauna in the UK have evolved in a temperate climate and as such, most are adapted to a higher level of rainfall and cooler temperatures throughout the summer. As a result, drought can be fatal. If there is enough water though, the hot weather means that plants and many insects progress more quickly through their lifecycles than they normally would. So organisms race ahead in development as long as the water supply holds out.

However, the biggest stress that the exceptional weather has placed on wildlife this summer is the drought. Only 6mm of rain fell in England during the first half of July and the UK received only 48% of the average rainfall it usually has in June. Although difficult to predict due to the complex web of interactions that make up ecology, this dry spell is likely to leave its share of winners and losers among British wildlife.

The winners

One area of the country that’s enjoying the weather is the Wigan Flashes nature reserve in Lancashire – where shallow lakes teeming with aquatic life have formed in the aftermath of mining subsidence.

The hot Wigan Flashes. Shutterstock

In summer, these lakes are often plagued by algal blooms of microscopic plant life that strip oxygen from the water as they decay. Usually, the warmer weather might have made these worse. But this year, the larger aquatic plants of the lakes flourished and crowded out the sunlight before the algal blooms could appear. Without so much algae around to decompose, the oxygen level in the water remained high.

A common tern welcomes the morning sun. Shutterstock

This allowed water fleas to thrive, providing abundant food for fish like perch and rudd, which then found their way into the gullets of birds like the common tern, which are likely to have a good breeding year. It would have taken a brave armchair naturalist to predict these chain of events.

For insects, the general view is that the hot weather has been a boon. Most winged insects like butterflies and bees are reluctant to fly in cool or wet weather and the heat has resulted in excellent numbers on the wing in the past.

A common lizard in uncommonly nice weather. Shutterstock

That’s good news for insectivorous birds like swifts and swallows and reptiles like the common lizard and adder who’ll benefit from the glut. Reptiles are at the northern limit of their range in the UK as they need hot weather to regulate their core temperature, so this summer’s heatwave will be very welcome.

A (not so) dark green fritillary. Shutterstock

The North Wales coast has seen good numbers of dark green fritillaries, grayling and brown argus butterflies. However, while the general picture for butterflies is good, these species depend upon plants both as a nectar source and as somewhere to feed their larvae. While many insects can move between plant species for nectar, the larval host plant is specific for each species. If this host plant is struggling without water then the larvae will have nothing to feed on.

The brown argus depends on rock roses for egg laying. Shutterstock

This is particularly true for rarer, highly specialist species that depend on one particular plant for their larvae like the brown argus butterfly, which would be threatened by any withering of rock roses in the present heat.

The losers and the usurpers

The mountain ringlet’s dark hues make hot weather a struggle. Shutterstock

Species in high altitude habitats like hills and mountains are adapted to cold, wet summers. Butterflies again provide a good example. For instance, the mountain ringlet is a small insect restricted to the Lake District and the Scottish Highlands. Its brown body is adapted to eking out any heat from the rare rays of the sun, so in this weather, overheating is a threat.

Likewise, rarer alpine plants are at the edge of their range and already restricted to north-facing slopes. The summer will have exacerbated their struggles even further given their physiology is adapted to cold conditions – too warm and they cook. The effects of climate change may become more pronounced as northern species at their southern limit retreat.

Frogs will be glad for any pond they can find. Shutterstock

Amphibians like frogs and toads may also stage an exodus to cooler climes. Although the insect boom might have helped with their food supply, in the drought it will have been a challenge to avoid drying out.

Even more drastic are the moorland fires that have raged as the dry weather means that vegetation is flammable. The most extensive fires have been those seen near Manchester.




Read more:
How climate change is increasing the risk of wildfires


The intensity and duration of the fire will have destroyed the seed bank, meaning that the newly burned areas are likely to be colonised by pioneer species, that means weeds to gardeners. These are tough, rapidly growing species that are easily dispersed such as rosebay willow herb and thistles – so expect some brightly coloured formerly burned hillsides in 2019.

Rosebay willow herb, otherwise known as ‘fireweed’. Shutterstock

Even without the calamity of the fires, this group of plants are likely to benefit given their high seed stores, easy wind-based dispersal and their capacity to occupy any open ground left by the disappearance of more specialist species.

The ConversationThese opportunistic coloniser plants are the long-term beneficiaries of this summer’s exceptional weather. After the heat has subsided, the changing make up of Britain’s moorlands will be an enduring reminder of the heatwave and its consequences.

Paul Ashton, Head of Biology, Edge Hill University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Liverpool judge’s decision recognises that ‘home’ still exists for the homeless

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Clare Kinsella, Edge Hill University

Stephen Gibney, a Liverpool man, has been sentenced to eight weeks imprisonment for urinating on homeless man Richard Stanley, while he slept rough in Liverpool City Centre. District Judge Wendy Lloyd handed down the sentence not just for degrading Stanley as a person, but also for attacking his home. Justice Lloyd condemned the offence, calling it:

A deliberate act of degradation of a homeless person … it was his home, his little pitch where he was trying to establish himself as a human being … apparently, to you and your companion this was just a joke.

By recognising that a homeless person can have something akin to a home, the judge acknowledges that home is an abstract, nebulous and subjective idea – that the meaning of home can differ between people and contexts. People who are homeless in the legal sense often feel as if they have a home, whether that be a city, a particular neighbourhood, a family or a friendship group. Some even understand their home in connection to the land, or as a content state of mind.

By making these comments, Justice Lloyd affords Stanley the dignity of having a recognisable defensible space, marked out by his possessions, which to all intents and purposes is his home – and should be respected as such.

A changing city

Since the early 1980s, Liverpool has been undergoing economic, physical, social, political, reputational and cultural regeneration. These processes have picked up pace since 2003, when Liverpool was announced as the 2008 European Capital of Culture. This accolade proved to be the catalyst for a range of initiatives to “clean up” the city, ready for its big year.

Like many other cities across the globe – New York, during its 1990s drive to shake off its title of “murder capital of the world”; Sydney, in the run up to the 2000 Olympics; and Glasgow in its preparations for its own European Capital of Culture year in 1990 – Liverpool’s authorities turned their attention to the city centre.

Mathew Street, Liverpool: drinkers with houses, welcome. littlenySTOCK/Shutterstock

In Liverpool, rough sleepers, street drinkers and any other groups identified as “uncivilised” impediments to regeneration were singled out and subjected to a range of punitive measures, including the criminalisation of street drinking and begging, designed to clear them from view. It was all part of the bid to present the city as prosperous and cultured, and to free it of its previous reputation for poverty, crime and post-industrial decline.

Scorned, not supported

Views of rough sleepers as anathema to prosperity and progress stem from the false belief that they must, by definition, perform all bodily functions – from urination and defecation to sleep and sex – in public spaces rather than a private home. Because of this, rough sleepers are seen as uncivilised – and consequently unwelcome – by authorities determined to attract business and tourism.

This has led, in some quarters, to the vilification of “visible” homeless people – particularly where their homelessness is seen as a “lifestyle choice” – on the basis that they wilfully stand in the way of social, economic and cultural progress. They are a social element to be scorned, rather than supported: a view which may have led Gibney – a man with a home in the conventional sense – to perform the kind of bodily function on Stanley, which is more often unfairly attributed to rough sleepers.

Once it is recognised that the idea of “home” applies beyond a formal abode of bricks and mortar, many more violations come to light: from the clearance of informal settlements, to the enforced displacement of whole populations.

For example, consider the forced removal of the population of Diego Garcia, an atoll in the Indian Ocean, to nearby Mauritius because the US military needed a refuelling base. The phenomenon is so widespread that it has even been given a name – domicide. The “-cide” suffix connotes murder: the deliberate, calculated and wilful killing of a home.

The ConversationBy thinking of the destruction of “home” as an act of killing, we recognise the its true value – home means so much more than simply a place or a building. And, although the meaning of home varies from person to person, those who lose their home – for whatever reason – almost universally experience shock, grief and bereavement. Justice Lloyd’s comments on handing down Gibney’s sentence reflect two vital but overlooked truths: that home has meaning beyond bricks and mortar and that being homeless does not necessarily mean having no home at all.

Clare Kinsella, Senior Lecturer in Criminology, Edge Hill University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

What Facebook isn’t telling us about its fight against online abuse

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Laura Bliss, Edge Hill University

Facebook has for the first time made available data on the scale of abusive comments posted to its site. This may have been done under the growing pressure by organisations for social media companies to be more transparent about online abuse, or to gain credibility after the Cambridge Analytica data scandal. Either way, the figures do not make for pleasurable reading.

In a six-month period from October 2017 to March 20178, 21m sexually explicit pictures, 3.5m graphically violent posts and 2.5m forms of hate speech were removed from its site. These figures help reveal some striking points.

As expected, the data indicates that the problem is getting worse. For instance, between January and March it was estimated that for every 10,000 messages online, between 22 and 27 contained graphic violence, up from 16 to 19 in the previous three months. This puts into sharp relief the fact that in the UK, prosecutions for online abuse have been decreasing, as demonstrated in the graph below.

Prosecutions for offensive messages. Based on figures obtained from the Ministry of Justice, Author provided

Yet what Facebook hasn’t told us is just as significant.

The social network has been under growing pressure to combat abuse on its site, in particular, the removal of terrorist propaganda after events such as the 2017 Westminster attack and Manchester Arena bombing. Here, the company has been proactive. Between January and March 2018, Facebook removed 1.9m messages encouraging terrorist propaganda, an increase of 800,000 comments compared to the previous three months. A total of 99.5% of these messages were located with the aid of advancing technology.

At first glance, it looks like Facebook has successfully developed software that can remove this content from its server. But Facebook hasn’t released figures showing how prevalent terrorist propaganda is on its site. So we really don’t know how successful the software is in this respect.

Removing violent posts

Facebook has also used technology to aid the removal of graphic violence from its site. Between the two three-month periods there was a 183% increase in the amount of posts removed that were labelled graphically violent. A total of 86% of these comments were flagged by a computer system.

But we also know that Facebook’s figures also show that up to 27 out of every 10,000 comments that made it past the detection technology contained graphic violence. That doesn’t sound like many but it’s worth considering the sheer number of total comments posted to the site by its more than 2 billion active users. One estimate suggests that 510,000 comments are posted every minute. If accurate, that would mean 1,982,880 violent comments are posted every 24 hours.

To make up for the failures in its detection software, Facebook, like other social networks, has for years relied on self-regulation, with users encouraged to report comments they believe should not be on the site. For example, between January and March 2018, Facebook removed 2.5m comments that were considered hate speech, yet only 950,000 (38%) of these messages had been flagged by its system. The other 62% were reported by users. This shows that Facebook’s technology is failing to adequately combat hate speech on its network, despite the growing concern that social networking sites are fuelling hate crime in the real world.

Thousands of abusive or violent messages are removed every day. Shutterstock

How many comments are reported?

This brings us to the other significant figure not included in the data released by Facebook: the total number of comments reported by users. As this is a fundamental mechanism in tackling online abuse, the amount of reports made to the company should be made publicly available. This will allow us to understand the full extent of abusive commentary made online, while making clear the total number of messages Facebook doesn’t remove from the site.

Facebook’s decision to release data exposing the scale of abuse on its site is a significant step forward. Twitter, by contrast, was asked for similar information but refused to release it, claiming it would be misleading. Clearly, not all comments flagged by users of social networking sites will breach its terms and conditions. But Twitter’s failure to release this information suggests the company is not willing to reveal the scale of abuse on its own site.

The ConversationHowever, even Facebook still has a long way to go to get to total transparency. Ideally, all social networking sites would release annual reports on how they are tackling abuse online. This would enable regulators and the public to hold the firms more directly to account for failures to remove online abuse from their servers.

Laura Bliss, PhD candidate in social media law, Edge Hill University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Parents are pulling children from RE lessons – so they don’t learn about Islam

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Paul Smalley, Edge Hill University

Religion has always been a feature of schooling in England. The Education Act of 1944 made the study of Religion the only compulsory subject in school and it was to be accompanied by a “daily act of worship” for all pupils. Back then religion was largely synonymous with Christianity.

But a recent survey from the National Association of Teachers of Religious Education shows there appears to be a growing problem with parents taking their children out of school RE lessons. The findings show that parents are withdrawing children from lessons on Islam, or visits to the Mosque, calling into question their preparation for life in modern Britain.

Recently published research suggests that “withdrawal” has been requested in almost three quarters of schools. More than 10% of those withdrawing are open about the fact that they are doing so for racist or Islamophobic reasons.

In 2017, the RE Council set up an independent commission to review RE. This Commission on RE has heard much anecdotal evidence of Islamophobically-inspired withdrawal. Teachers up and down the country have stories of parents not wishing their children to learn about “that terrorist religion”. This conflicts with the duty of schools to promote “British Values” of tolerance and respect and to challenge extremism.

Recently, the teaching union, the Association of Teachers and Lecturer, passed a motion condemning “racist” parents who pull their children out of RE lessons. The union has urged the government to put a stop to it.

The law on withdrawal

Parents are able to pull their children out of RE lessons by drawing on the 1996 Education Act, which states that a parent can request that for their child to be wholly or partly excused from religious education and religious worship in the school.

A voluntary “conscience clause” existed in some church schools since the 1820s and became part of the 1870 and 1944 education acts. Put simply, if the only school in the village was a Roman Catholic school, and Anglican and nonconformist parents did not want their children indoctrinated into Catholicism (and vice-versa) they could be excused from the religious instruction offered there. They could then provide their own denominationally suitable religious instruction either at school or elsewhere.

Some parents didn’t want their children to visit a mosque. Shutterstock

For decades this clause appeared to cause few problems. Indeed research I carried out suggests that there was little to be worried about. In a handful of schools, occasional families with a particular background – often Jehovah’s Witnesses – would not take part in assemblies or RE lessons and would instead, work quietly on their own materials. But it seems now, times are changing.

RE has changed

Unsurprisingly, the study of religion in schools has changed dramatically since a Bible Studies syllabus was envisioned in 1944. The subject must still be provided for all pupils in school, but now the RE Council states that:

Religious education contributes dynamically to children and young people’s education in schools by provoking challenging questions about meaning and purpose in life, beliefs about God, ultimate reality, issues of right and wrong and what it means to be human.

In RE they learn about and from religions and worldviews in local, national and global contexts, to discover, explore and consider different answers to these questions. They learn to weigh up the value of wisdom from different sources, to develop and express their insights in response, and to agree or disagree respectfully.

These are essential skills and knowledge that all pupils need to be able to develop in order to play a full part in modern multicultural Britain.

Time for a rethink?

The Association of Teachers and Lecturers are not the first to call for an end to withdrawal. In 2015 the former secretary of state for education and home secretary, Charles Clarke, and religious studies academic, Linda Woodhead, proposed a “new settlement” in which they claimed there was “no case for a right to withdraw a child from ‘religious education’”.

RE lessons are an important part of school life. Shutterstock

They pointed out that the European Convention on Human Rights and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child mean that a child should be free to express his or her religious beliefs – rather than those of their parents. The Commission on RE’s Interim Report found a significant majority of stakeholders advocating the removal of the right to withdrawal.

Humanists UK are one of the few voices who defend the right to withdraw claiming that withdrawal protects pupils from what they still claim can be indoctrinating teaching – particularly in faith based schools.

The ConversationDespite these conversations, too often politicians have shied away from difficult decisions on religion and education. But pressure is mounting on them to act. And this is important, because as things stand, children who are removed from RE lessons are not going to be prepared for life in modern Britain.

Paul Smalley, SOLSTICE Fellow and Senior Lecturer in Religious Education, Edge Hill University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Eurovision Song Contest 2018: Olá Amigos!

All Aboard, Eurofans! It’s that time again…

This is the 11th year of my Eurovision Song Contest blog. I’m not blogging from sunny Lisbon this year, no – it’ll be sunny Southport/Ormskirk for me once again. As with last year this won’t stop me from getting suitably Eurovision giddy, and sharing my thoughts on the Contest this year with returning and new blog readers.

I’ll be blogging from this Sunday. The rehearsals have been underway in Lisbon since last weekend and from what I have seen of the snippets of rehearsal footage it’s once again going to be a musically and visually interesting year. Israel have been the bookies favourite for months now, but is now being challenged by Norway and France amongst others. The ‘Big Five’ and host country Portugal start their rehearsals today (4 May), so let’s see how they get on.

Anyway, I’ll be back online from Sunday, so in the meantime here’s the official Eurovision trailer to get you in the mood, with a whole load of songs I’be commented on since I started doing this blog waaay back in 2008…

Obrigada, Euro-chums!

Click here to read more of Phil’s Eurovision blogs here

Forcefully holding children for health procedures causes avoidable stress

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Shutterstock/Seventyfour

Lucy Bray, Edge Hill University and Bernie Carter, Edge Hill University

When children go to hospital they enter a strange place. It’s an unfamiliar building that sounds and smells unusual, full of strangers and intimidating equipment. This can be overwhelming and can make them feel small and anxious. Children cannot always find a way to say that they are scared or worried about having a simple procedure such as an X-ray or blood test so they show their feelings through crying or refusing to have the procedure done.

This does not always happen, as many parents and professionals are skilled at using creative methods such as play, books and technology, to prepare and distract a child and help them have a good experience of having a procedure.

However, we know from our work that a child who says “no”, “stop” or “wait” is not always listened to and a child kicking out, crying or trying to wriggle away is not always taken as a sign by parents or professionals to stop.

In our study, we observed 31 procedures undertaken in a children’s hospital and interviewed the health professionals, parents and children. In many of the cases the child was held in order to “get the procedure done quickly”.

Often, especially with young children, a parent or health professional will hold a child to make sure the procedure is completed. This may be a parent giving their child a “tight hug” on their knee or in some cases may involve a child having their arms and legs held by parents and health professionals. This holding of children to get procedures done is not something that happens once in a while, it happens often within healthcare. The majority of health professionals (81%) in our international questionnaire reported that children are held for procedures frequently or very frequently.

Children get scared during some procedures. shutterstock/Photographee.eu

‘Upsetting and stressful’

Most parents will remember holding their child for a procedure at some stage in their lives, whether this was for an immunisation, examination or procedure. In many cases parents feel that being with their child is important and being the one to hold them feels supportive. Parents want to do “whatever it takes” for their child. But some parents are “surprised” at being asked to hold their child and can find it “upsetting and stressful” if they end up having to hold them forcefully.

Our research shows that professionals can also feel upset. One professional told us: “Sometimes you think you might have gone a little bit too far, you do think …‘I don’t like the fact that I had to hold her so tight’”. Most importantly being forcefully held can cause a child to be scared of coming to hospital and having procedures in the future. They can even experience psychological trauma and harm.

Is the procedure urgent?

Each situation that may lead to a child being held is unique and presents a particular set of circumstances. In some cases, when a child is very poorly or unwell and a procedure or treatment is urgent then it may be justifiable to hold a child who is resisting and asking for it to stop.

But the decision to hold a child who is sobbing and clearly upset is more difficult to justify if the procedure is not urgent. Health professionals and parents make a quick on the spot decision whether to hold a child to get a procedure done. We found that parents and health professionals can become too focused on getting a procedure done and neglect to take a minute to think if there is a different way.

Each child has a right to express their dissent through words like “stop” or by pushing people away. When this happens they should be listened to – not simply ignored and held more tightly.

The Rights of the Child

Children have rights, acknowledged by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The convention outlines how children have a right to be protected from harm and the right to an opinion. More importantly, they have a right for this opinion to be listened to and taken seriously.

Professional guidance states that holding a child for a procedure should be a “last resort” after all other means of preparation and distraction have been tried. Our work shows that holding children for non-urgent procedures is not always a last resort. It continues to be a part of everyday practice that impacts on everyone involved. Our research is looking at how to develop resources and new interventions to help avoid this.

The ConversationChanging practice requires each and every one of us to challenge how taken for granted the use of holding is. Using creative methods to prepare children for procedures and supporting children throughout can do a great deal to reduce the need for forceful holding and reduce the stress and trauma which can be experienced by children, parents and health professionals.

Lucy Bray, Professor in Child Health Literacy, Edge Hill University and Bernie Carter, Professor of Children’s Nursing, Edge Hill University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Sore throats and false nails – the ambulance call-outs that cost millions

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Brian A Jackson/Shutterstock

Keegan Clay Shepard, Edge Hill University

Ambulance call-outs are increasing, resulting in services operating under enormous, and probably unsustainable, pressure. While most calls do need an emergency response, far too many don’t. A study of 300 consecutive emergency ambulance arrivals to an accident and emergency (A&E) department in London, England, found that only 54% of the patients legitimately needed an ambulance.

The tabloid press are fond of reporting daft ambulance call-outs, like one to revive a dead pigeon, and another to see if McDonald’s had run out of chicken nuggets. Funny though they are, these kinds of calls put a strain on services and take paramedics away from emergencies that are genuinely life threatening.

These calls can also be truly disheartening for paramedics who see themselves as health professionals who are there to treat people and save lives. Research has found this to be a common concern among paramedics who are obliged to respond to patients no matter how silly they perceive the call to be. In my ongoing study of the perceptions of patient safety in three English ambulance service NHS trusts, an emergency operations centre supervisor told me of her frustration:

I have questioned one drunken man’s request for an ambulance because he had a sore throat, and this is when there were 23 calls waiting to get through, and I was angry about that.

Her anger at situations like these is both understandable and common, with one paramedic involved in my study discussing his concern for other patients with legitimate emergencies, when having to respond to calls they find to be ridiculous:

You laugh, but when I started I got a call-out to a girl because of false nails. She’d been playing with her boyfriend, bent her nail, bent back and the nail come off … And while I’m dealing with that, there could be a cardiac arrest somewhere, someone could be stuck under a lorry.

Not an emergency. CRM/Shutterstock.com

As well as tying up resources that could be used to treat genuine medical emergencies and increasing the waiting times at A&E departments, these calls can be expensive for the ambulance services. In the UK, each call costs about £7, £180 if an ambulance is sent to treat a patient and £233 if the patient is brought to the emergency department. Given that a significant portion of calls are seen as not requiring an emergency response, this can add up to millions of pounds every year.

24/7 culture

Although the rise in the rate of demand for ambulance services, at 6.5% each year, is relatively recent in the UK, inappropriate call-outs have been documented in research going back at least two decades. One study proposed a couple of reasons why patients phone the emergency services for conditions that could be treated in primary care, including difficulty getting a GP appointment and a perception that they will be treated more quickly.

The high number of inappropriate calls could also be attributed to a 24/7 culture, where people expect immediate treatment for any condition, no matter the severity. A paramedic in my study considered it to be a generational problem, with millennials making the most of these calls:

It’s a great generation, but young people today don’t understand what the services are for, and we didn’t have this problem as bad some decades ago. They will call us for just about anything.

Public awareness

With demand projected to increase in coming years, it is clear that the ambulance services need to address the issue of inappropriate call-outs soon. Many things can be done to lessen the pressures of demand and to allocate the resources of the ambulance services more efficiently. However, to reduce the number of silly call-outs, it’s clear that public perception of what the ambulance service is for, needs to change.

Awareness could be spread through educational campaigns, using social media to reach the patients online, such as South Central Ambulance Service’s 999 Misuse Costs Lives campaign, which informed patients of when it’s appropriate to dial 999 and when it’s appropriate to use a different service, such as a GP clinic.

The ConversationAlthough changing people’s expectations is essential, a more holistic approach will also be necessary – one that gives patients appropriate access to alternative care settings, such as their GP or walk-in centres. Until this is done, some people will continue to rely on the ambulance service to treat minor ailments.

Keegan Clay Shepard, PhD Student and Graduate Teaching Assistant, Edge Hill University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

‘As a gay man, escaping the North was a matter of life and death’

By Billy Cowan, Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing.

In April 1998 when Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern were signing the Good Friday agreement at Castle Buildings, I was just coming to the end of a degree in Creative Writing and Theatre Studies at Liverpool John Moore’s University. As a young, gay, Northern Irish man from a staunchly loyalist background, I had willingly left the armoured vehicles and the red, white and blue pavements behind for a more peaceful life in England.

For me as for lots of other young, Northern Irish people who grew up during the Troubles, getting out was an existential necessity. As a gay man it was even more a matter of life and death. Staying would have meant the subjugation of my sexuality and desire, the negation of my identity.

Growing up in a household ruled by a homophobic, bigoted matriarch who had pictures of the Reverend Ian Paisley mounted on her walls, also meant that my home-life was just as much a warzone as the one outside, and I desperately needed to escape.

From the age of about twelve to seventeen, daily battles with my Ma felt no less as terrifying and bloody as the tit for tat battles taking place in the rest of The Province. I remember clearly the “screaming matches” we used to have during the time of the Anglo-Irish Agreement (AIA) and the Ulster Says No protests. I thought the AIA was a step in the right direction; an opportunity for dialogue with all sides concerned. Ma thought it was one step closer to a united Ireland and the erosion of her Protestant identity.

When I used to challenge her about this Protestant identity, highlighting the fact she never set foot in a church or appeared to have any Christian values, she’d retort that she was a Protestant politically not religiously! You could never win with my mother.

The effect of this upbringing was to make me quite apolitical; completely apathetic to the situation in the North. I didn’t really care whether Ireland was united or if the six counties remained part of the UK. I didn’t really feel Irish, and I didn’t really feel British. I didn’t care what flag flew above my head except, maybe, the rainbow flag.

The one thing I did care about, though, was peace. I wanted the killings and the pain to stop. So, when the agreement was mooted I was full of hope. Here was a real chance of peace, and I wanted it to work out.

Ma, of course, like the DUP, was against it. The very mention of the word “peace” would cause her to fly into a rage, barking like a rabid dog about us Protestants being sold down the river Lagan and into the South, and how we’d soon be controlled by Rome. She hated the idea of the Republic having any say in the future of Northern Ireland; not even the Nineteenth Amendment that rescinded the Republic’s irredentist claim on Northern Ireland could appease her.

Paramilitarism

The negative responses of the DUP and my mother infuriated me and for the first time in my life I was compelled to respond to the political situation. Making use of my three years study of theatre and creative writing, I decided to write a play. Inspired by Queer Theory and Judith Butler’s idea of “queering” I was going to take the situation in Northern Ireland and turn it into a queer farce.

It was going to be outrageous and provocative; it was going to subvert the usual macho, heterosexual Troubles narrative that always focused on paramilitarism; it was going to be personal, a way to come to terms with my mother and my upbringing; and, most importantly, it was going to end on a hopeful note of reconciliation and peace to reflect the tangible hope that I, and many others, felt in April 1998.

I set about writing the play. My mother became Peggy Morrow and I was her son, Kyle. When Kyle comes out to Peggy, on the eve of the Good Friday agreement, she demands he leave the house. Instead Kyle barricades himself into his bedroom and goes on hunger strike until she changes her mind and accepts him for what he is.

The divided household and the “war” that ensues was the perfect metaphor for the conflict in the North. Peggy represented Unionism, Kyle Nationalism. Once this central conceit was in place, the play practically wrote itself. By the end of three or four weeks, Smilin’ Through was born: a mad-cap play with song and dance numbers; dream sequences; fellatio; dead terrorists; members of paramilitary organisations called Ulster Against Faggots and the Irish Queer Liberation Army; religious leaders called Reverend McMillan and Cardinal Dainty who come together to persuade Peggy to keep up her stance against Kyle and homosexuality.

I even had a singing Canadian Mountie who appeared to Peggy in fantasy sequences and is the one who helps her see the error of her ways. This character was based on one of my mother’s favourite Hollywood stars from the 30s and 40s, Nelson Eddy. To me, it was the perfect way to represent the former US Senator George Mitchell who was mediating the peace talks at Stormont.

Power-sharing

Ironically, like the road to peace, the road to production of the play was long, and there were many hiccups and milestones on the way. In 2002, three years after it was written, it won the Writing Out award for best new gay play, organised by Finborough Theatre London, and then in 2004 it won Contact Theatre’s Flip the Script slam.

This led to John McGrath of Contact commissioning the play and finally co-producing it in 2005 with Birmingham Repertory Theatre. Although the play was produced almost seven years after the Good Friday agreement it was still relevant because peace in Northern Ireland at that point remained tenuous; the IRA’s decommissioning of its weapons wasn’t fully achieved until September 2005 and the devolved government at Stormont had been suspended because the unionists lacked the trust needed to enter the power-sharing Executive. My play, with its happy ending where Peggy and Kyle are reunited in a rendition of Smilin’ Through, one of my mother’s favourite songs, offered some much needed positivity.

On the opening night at the Birmingham Rep, I sat at the back of the auditorium and cried as the audience responded with riotous laughter and rapturous applause. I didn’t cry because I felt proud or relieved that it had finally been produced. I cried for Peggy and Kyle, for me and my mother. I cried for all those who had suffered in the years preceding the Good Friday agreement. And I cried for Northern Ireland, its past and its future.

 

Billy Cowan is Senior lecturer in Creative Writing at Edge Hill University. Smilin’ Through went on to be nominated for best new play at the Manchester Evening News theatre awards 2005. It is published by Playdead Press.

Why the age of sexual consent continues to be a worldwide challenge

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shutterstock/MIAStudio

Michael Richards, Edge Hill University

France is considering changing its legal age of consent so that sex before the age of 15 is automatically considered rape after recent child sex cases raised serious concerns. At the moment, prosecutors have to prove that the underage sex was non-consensual to obtain a rape conviction.

The change is being proposed as a way to tackle issues with the laws in France that mean if no violence or coercion has taken place or been proved, offenders can only be charged with sexual abuse and not rape. In fact, sentences of this nature are the same for sexual assaults of minors and non-minors.

The debate around the age of consent is still as relevant and as serious as it ever was. In the UK, the age of consent is 16. But in Germany and Italy it is 14, whereas in Turkey the age of consent is 18. Yet, if we consider that one in three teenagers are having sex before the age of 16, does that mean the age of consent needs to be considered again in the UK?

 

Children and the law

It is an issue that emerges time and time again in the UK and it always remains at deadlock. But does UK law ensure that our children are always on the edge of being a “sex offender”?

In the UK, under the Sexual Offences Act 2003, it is illegal to engage in sexual activity with someone under the age of 16. In some cases, it may be a defence to say that it was reasonable that there was a belief that the person was 16 or over. But, ordinarily, a “sex offender” is likely to be imprisoned for around five years if someone was under 18 at the time. The sentence increases to ten years to life if the offender is over 18 at the time of the offence.

In effect, it does not matter what your age is. But if you have sex with someone under 16, you become a sex offender. That is despite half of all UK teenagers having their first sexual experience by the age of 14, according to the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles. So is it right to see young people hauled before the courts, convicted and put on a sex offenders register alongside adult rapists and paedophiles?

This is the reality but the law is there for a reason – to protect the vulnerable and less experienced. Although this does not always happen. The NSPCC says five child sex offences are reported every hour. It is no surprise then that people have expressed concerns that some sex offenders would see any change in the law on consent as an opportunity to focus their sexual intentions on young teenagers. The worry is it could lead to an increase in abuse cases and increasing pressure to have sex at a younger age.

Some are concerned that it might lead to a further increase in STI rates and unwanted pregnancies (the UK has some of the highest rates of teenage pregnancies in Western Europe).

There are wider issues relating to the sexualisation of childhood and the culture that we live in. Can we not just let children be children?

There is also the issue of education – or lack of it – in schools and at home relating to sexual consent and behaviour. So lowering the age of consent is not necessarily the answer.

A confusing global picture

While 16 remains the average age of consent in Europe and beyond, there are dramatic differences globally. This ensures there are confused messages about when it is right to have sex or not. In some countries, you have to be married before you have any sexual relations (Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia). In other countries, you can have sex from the age of 11 (Nigeria) and quite a few countries allow the age of consent to be 13, including Japan and Niger. For many, for the age of consent to be so low is unthinkable. But it may reflect the traditions, religion, culture and history of a particular country.

Perhaps the laws of consent need to be more flexible and realistic to ensure that young people are protected. At the same time, there must be an appreciation that many reach sexual maturity quicker than others and therefore are able to make choices about their own bodies. For example, in Canada, while the age of consent is 16, the legislation is constructed in such a way that older sexual predators would be prosecuted rather than young teenagers who might be in established relationships, even if they have not quite reached the age of 16. This also alleviates some of the pressure associated with having sex at a younger age.

The issue of consent is an emotive one that may never be fully resolved. But it is an important issue for people of all ages. France is having that debate once again. Perhaps it is time the UK joined in?

Michael Richards, Lecturer in Applied Health and Social Care, Edge Hill University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Inclusive medical schools are a must

Edge Hill Vice-Chancellor John Cater explains why the new non-Russell Group medical schools are so vital:

Two and a half decades ago, in my first full year in the day job, I am on the Euston Road in London. Half a mile away, 17 universities are meeting in the Russell Hotel.

Edge Hill did not qualify for university title in the early 1990s. Although it had recently merged with three schools of nursing and midwifery, it was, at best, what estate agents euphemistically call a “development opportunity”.

In 2006 it acquired full university status, and this week it was granted one of the five new medical schools.

The NHS is in difficulty. Unwise cuts in commissions early in the coalition government years have been compounded by budgetary shortages, the need for safe staffing levels and policy changes that are making the UK a less attractive destination for professionals from overseas.

In response, the cap has been lifted on nursing recruitment, although negative perceptions of the new tuition fee regime are stifling demand for less popular programmes, and last year the secretary of state announced plans to recruit 1,500 additional trainee doctors.

The first 500 places were allocated in the autumn to existing medical schools, and every such school has also participated successfully in the second bidding round, taking up a further 590 places.

But just over 400 places have been allocated to five new schools. Partnership arrangements between Nottingham and Lincoln and Kent and Canterbury Christ Church have been rewarded with just under half of this number, with three new free-standing schools being approved, in Chelmsford, Sunderland and, smallest of all…Ormskirk.

Geographically disparate, the three new schools all have something in common: resonance with the Department of Health’s clearly expressed commitment to widen participation in medical education.

Edge Hill University was founded in the 1880s with a mission to provide access to higher education, and it has sought to remain true to that vision for the past 130 years, working closely with schools and colleges as the regional lead for Aim Higher, the sponsor of the local lifelong learning network and the national host of Action on Access.

To twin-track excellence and accessibility has not always been easy, but the prize is worth fighting for. It is half a century since we pioneered innovative programmes that qualified graduates as both teachers and nurses of children with learning disabilities, and today we train individuals to qualify both as nurses and social workers, recruiting heavily from Merseyside, the overspill estates and the former mill and mining towns of the north west.

This integration is important to us. Hospitals and communities operate better when individuals bring skill sets, and parity of esteem, and work together in teams. The challenges in our region are substantial; my office is on the outskirts of one town and four miles from another. The difference in average life expectancy between the two, just 10 minutes’ drive away, is 10 years.

This also influences what our new medical school will do. We have eschewed the opportunity to start before 2020 because we intend to start in other ways before 2020; we begin today, raising awareness and ambition with Year 9, 10 and 11 pupils in schools and colleges in less privileged parts of the region, offering a foundation programme in 2019 for those with less conventional qualifications, before taking our first intake of medical undergraduates the following year.

Our specialisms will be different, too. While covering the full curriculum, we will have a particular focus on general practice, on primary care, health promotion, nutrition, psychiatry, palliative care, on the ability to treat patients at home not in hospital, and to help prevent preventable ills.

And we want our locally trained doctors to return to and work in local communities, communities where recruiting trained medics is challenging but where the healthcare needs are greatest.

Will it be tough? You bet. Will it cost us money? It will, as we invest in new staff, new equipment and a brand-new clinical skills centre, as well as outreach facilities in our hospitals and our community.

We are starting small, making sure that we get it right, but building on our experience in providing master’s of surgery and master’s of medicine postgraduate programmes for qualified doctors over the past decade.

Should we be doing it? Undoubtedly. Of course the perceived reputational benefits matter, but the fit is right – clinicians alongside our trainee nurses and midwives, social workers and nutritionists, paramedics and operating theatre staff.

More important, the fit is right ideologically, too. Universities have had a bad press over the past year, but we are here to improve life chances and to educate and train those who can improve others’ life chances.

A community-focused medical school on the fringes of areas of multiple deprivation is a wonderful opportunity to take that commitment, that ideology, and put it into practice.