How do I persuade my sons to vote?

My sons do not want to exercise their constitutional rights at the next election, and nothing I have said so far has changed that view. They both have views on politics, understand that it affects their lives, follow current affairs and have a reasonable grasp of the battle for universal suffrage. They both say that their reluctance to vote is not about apathy; they point to the Scottish Independence referendum and say that, if they really thought their vote would change something then they, like young people North of the border, would vote.

Their reasons differ in places, overlap in others.

One of them feels ill-equipped to vote. He is concerned that he does not know enough about politics and economics. He is worried that he might vote for the *wrong* person or party, and that, in doing so he might be responsible for the *wrong* person or party gaining power and somehow, personally be responsible for all the ills the country suffers as a consequence. This seems to me to be a fundamental failure to understand maths and statistics, or to grasp the principle of a collective voice. He merges the kind of magical thinking which allows people to play the lottery, combined with a lack of confidence in his own judgement.

Is that my fault? Recently he raised with me the letter sent to Muslim leaders in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo murders. He wondered why any politician would think that was a useful or right thing to do. “It isn’t,” I explained. “It’s dog-whistle politics.” He looked confused. “The letter was addressed to Muslim leaders, but the message was meant to be heard by UKIP supporters and possibly the Jewish community. Those are the votes the letter was chasing. If you really wanted support from Muslim leaders on tackling radicalisation, that is not the way to get it”. Have I made it all seem too difficult and sly?

I remember as a teenager feeling excluded and ignorant when I didn’t get the in-jokes and references in Private Eye. But there was a counter-balance to that; I learned about politics from music and programmes like Spitting Image and Not the Nine O’Clock News. It was accessible, funny and illuminating; clever, without being “clever, clever” or smug. Last week’s Rory Bremner show was the first time I have heard someone impersonate David Cameron. Ever. Which other PM can you say that about? Perhaps his lack of confidence isn’t all my fault.

There are issues he cares about and does understand. Those are the issues he should focus on when deciding who to vote for. If it is important to him, then by making them his deciding factor he moves them up the political agenda in a small, personal way. I point him toward the grey vote, who do vote and so have power. Look at the difference between the ending of universal child benefit and the preservation of winter fuel benefit, I say. And not voting does not absolve him of responsibility for the future of his country. Not voting still has an impact and can still change political outcomes.

His brother, by contrast, believes that the system is corrupt to its core and that everyone should refuse to vote, swiftly followed by  revolution, where, think, he would like Anonymous to take charge of everything, everywhere. He speaks of broken promises – university tuition fees; of corporate lobbyists and the power of money – the banks, HSBC and the privatisation of the NHS; of the cost of housing, low pay and inequality. And he seems resigned to the idea that this is how it is and always will be.

He doesn’t want to hear that the 5 pillars of the welfare state were political creations, within his grandfather’s lifetime. Politics can change things. No-one has given him a vision, a positive ideal he wants to vote for. A couple of years ago my sons told me that, apart from them and a neighbour’s daughter, all of their childhood friends were either in university or in prison. And yes, they recognised that the student fees marches and the Summer riots had skewed the picture somewhat, but still this represents a massive political failure.

There is a passion and a force to his views which I think can be harnessed, for cynicism only comes from broken idealism.

I am not against direct action, but my son cannot tell me what he sees coming after the revolution. If you reject democracy, you are left with a dictatorship. I point him towards Tony Benn’s 5 questions for people with power:

What power do you have?

Where did you get it from?

In whose interests do you use it?

To whom are you accountable?

How do we get rid of you?

And he has no answer, he doesn’t want to think about the question, because all he sees is the entrenched power governing his life today.

I put the question out on Twitter and here are some of the crowd-sourced replies I’ve received.

@brokenbarnet supported direct action “get hold of them by the scruff of the neck & march them to the polling station, under maternal supervision, backed up by threats”. But also “ask them if they want to help people suffering under the current regime.” and “point out that people who say they don’t do politics have politics done to them.”

@sophiewarnes said “I vote partly out of respect for those who died for it and partly because (and it took me a long while to realise it) the political is personal, and politics governs everything you value.”

& @adamnieman said “Maybe tell them: not turning up says to politicians: do whatever you want. Spoiling your slip says: none of you are good enough.”

Feel free to offer more advice here, or knock on the door & canvass them.


The Big Chinwag

“I might have known,” said Eeyore. “After all, one can’t complain. I have my friends. Somebody spoke to me only yesterday. And was it last week or the week before that Rabbit bumped into me and said ‘Bother!’. The Social Round. Always something going on.”

AA Milne Winnie the Pooh

Loneliness – the Big Taboo. The one thing almost no-one will admit to at a chinwag, let alone a Big Chinwag. It is easier to talk about sex or death, sickness or money than to admit that you are lonely. It is hard to think about, even if you are not lonely.

When Middlesex University’s Dept of Nursing did some research for Age UK Barnet a few years back they found that people avoided using the word. Instead they used proxies, talking about the importance of “keeping busy” or saying they were “lucky” because they had a daughter or a neighbour.

Here is an interview with the wonderful George, a client of Age UK Barnet, who breaks the taboo

Recent research has shown that loneliness has a huge detrimental impact on health, more significant that obesity or alcohol intake, in fact second only to smoking.

Tackling it should be easy, but it is hard when you are lonely. Hard to ask for help, or go out and join groups. Harder still if you are disabled, recently bereaved, or living in poverty (as 14% of Barnet’s over 65s are).

But it isn’t difficult for the rest of us to help.

Chat to a neighbour. It isn’t difficult – knock on the door and say “I live at number 5; I’ve seen you around but we’ve never really chatted, so I thought I would introduce myself properly”

Volunteer for Age UK Barnet – we are always looking for people to help with befriending, as volunteer drivers, or organising trips and meet ups. Volunteers with Age UK Barnet get training and support, as well as the opportunity to use us as a reference if you volunteer for 3 months or more. Contact sian.jones(at) for more details.

Host an event for the Big Chinwag in aid of Age UK Barnet (or Age UK) on 20 June. Invite some friends round for coffee, hold a cake sale or a sponsored silence.

Contact lisa.dubow(at) for more details.

You could donate directly to Age UK Barnet – send your donation to Ann Owens Centre, Oak Lane, N2 8LT or donate here

Thank you.




Barnet Council Consultations – A Personal View

In case you didn’t know, I live in the London Borough of Barnet, a council which has recently embraced their statutory responsibility to consult. I say recently, because of course, at the judicial review of Barnet’s decision to outsource most of its functions to Capita, the Court agreed that there had been no consultation whatsoever, let alone meaningful consultation.

In Barnet we have a consultation website and a twitter account which used to let you know when consultations had just closed, but now also tweets the open ones.

We have consultation, but is it meaningful? I have taken part in a lot of these consultations, and frankly I am underwhelmed. So, here is what I think.

Online consultation

There is a problem here. Online consultations are cheap and accessible for people who are online, but not everyone is. Nearly 3/4 of women over 75 have never been online, so if that is a group which will be affected by the consultation, then you will not reach them. If you aren’t reaching them, if you are not even trying to reach them, then that is not meaningful consultation.

The online forms lead you through the questions, but time out if you take too long think about your response, or typing it if you are not a good typist. Sometimes the boxes have word limits, which are not advertised in advance. And you cannot keep a copy of the online form easily for future reference. Personally, I prefer to read through all the questions first, so I understand where the document is going, and what each question is getting at and I like to have a copy of my consultation response, particularly if it is made on behalf of an organisation rather than me personally.

This might suit the Council, or Capita, but that isn’t really the point of consultation, is it? If what you really want is to listen to people’s views, then you make it easy for them, and put their needs first.

To be fair to Barnet, they have got slightly better. They have, for example, removed the edict that no policy issues can be discussed at Residents Forums, but they have never used those forums for consultation. They have run a few consultations at North London Business Park, inviting people in, but what they have not done is brought consultation out to the people they want to listen to.

Background information

I do not understand how you can possibly consult on a draft policy without actually providing a copy of that policy to look at alongside it. As happens here

To be fair, there is an email address, and when I used it I received a copy of the draft policy document and a copy of the questions for the online survey very swiftly. Just a shame that no-one thought to add those to the website at the same time.

Consultation wording

This, I completely accept, is a difficult thing to get right. But I am absolutely sick of the fig leaf of consultation which allows leading questions or a complete lack of options. Back in 2012 Barnet consulted on the future of services for older people. On the positive side, it was recognised that this needed to be in paper format, given the audience, and the Council offered to come and speak to older people in day centres to explain what the consultation was about. On the other hand, the consultation paper was so long (26 pages) that no-one wanted to fill it in. Age UK Barnet rewrote it, condensing it down, and simplifying the wording. The results were very interesting. More people responded to the Age UK Barnet consultation than the whole of the rest of the borough. Not only that, but by simplifying the wording we found that the results were the absolute opposite of the results that Barnet obtained. When people understood what they were being asked and were not given leading questions, they answered differently. Very differently.

So, here is what I think. Asking leading questions because you have already decided what you want to do, and want cover to do that, is just plain wrong. People will, quite rightly, feel tricked. If your proposed policy is so great, stand behind it, make your case and let people decide. Even if it is controversial. Anything less is an abuse of trust. Trust your policy and trust people to be honest about it. People are more likely to accept difficult decisions if they understand them and have been given the chance to have their say.

And whilst you are making the case, lay out the options for people. There are always alternatives.

The consultation I linked to earlier, on defining social interests/ well-being for Assets of Community Value is a case in point. The consultation says that 8 nominations have been received and 6 approved because they have used the statutory framework. They want a local policy that meets local needs. They have decided they already have that policy – the Core Strategy planning policy. It would be easier and simpler to use that. They don’t explain what an Asset of Community Value is, so I will. It is a building or an open space which is of value to the people of the locality, for social reasons or because it improves health and well-being. You can apply to have anything listed; Friern Barnet Library is one example on the register. The Bohemia pub, as was, is another. Community centres, day centres, sports grounds, green spaces, pubs which act as local hubs, post offices, shops which sell fresh food and vegetables could all be registered at the moment.

If the asset is registered it cannot be sold without first giving the community 6 months within which to raise the money to buy it. They may be able to purchase it at a discount. Being on the register is also a material consideration in any planning decision (for example building on open space or change of use of a high street property). It won’t necessarily be the deciding factor, but it is something which has to be taken into account.

Which makes the proposed policy a nonsense. Planning law is all about balancing the rights and tensions between what a landowner wants and what his or her neighbours want. You want space for voices to be heard, and the whole point of this register, created by the Localism Act 2011, is to make a space for local people to explain why a particular place is important. If the policy by which a Community Asset is assessed is the Core Strategy, then not only does it not add any advantage in getting it registered, it actually weakens the case when a planning application is made if the property has not been registered. The Core Strategy is about a broad brush approach; the register is about individual plots, buildings and businesses. Their purpose and focus is completely different.

The draft policy also makes no attempt to quantify or assess the degree of social value. A greengrocers might not be on the register if it is one of many; if it is the only shop which sells fresh food in an area where there are lots of older people who do not drive, it might be vital. A church hall which is only used for Sunday school once a week and occasional wedding receptions might have limited social value, but if it is used for lunch clubs, exercise classes, AA meetings, mother and toddler groups and charity quiz nights, that is a different story.

So, if I was drafting this policy I would look at: distance from nearest alternative; accessibility/ appropriateness of nearest alternative; number of people who use it; vulnerability of people who use it; importance to surrounding businesses/ high street; and contribution to health and well-being strategy.

The consultation does not explain any of this. It does not provide options. It drives you, inexorably, to one forgone conclusion. The wrong one. Do me a favour and tell them that.

Listen to the answers

There are obvious ways of not listening. I took part in the consultation on fitness activities in parks. I had things to say. It closed on 4 Dec and the results were expected on 11 Dec and feedback on 18 Dec. It is now 22 Feb and there is no sign of the results.

I recently sat in a focus group on adult social care. The facilitator did a good job of allowing everyone to have their say, which they did. Some more than others, but all broadly expressing the same concerns and experiences. At the end the facilitator summed up with three different versions of “So you agree with the policy broadly, but…” all interrupted by members of the group. Although I had not commented on this point in the policy either way, it was really clear what everyone else was saying. Any summing up which began with you agree with the policy was not an accurate reflection of the consultation feedback. So I said that. There was silence and then the point was taken. If this was the conclusion drawn from a group who were sitting there, able to challenge it in the moment, then what on Earth are the conclusions drawn from raw data which no-one sees.

And then there are the consultations where the public get the “wrong” answer.

In 2011 Barnet came up with the wonderful money-spinning wheeze of hiring out our public parks for private events. Blogger Mrs Angry covered this extensively

There was an outcry and the policy was withdrawn, but it appears that it has quietly sneaked back, buried deep in this consultation on charges:

And if you fancy responding to that, do me a favour and kick into touch the proposed £21 charge for people who cannot use online or automated telephone payment options – you know, the old, the hearing impaired, those with learning disabilities and early dementia, the vulnerable people who need a little time and patience. We can give them that, can’t we?

Thank you. Rant over.

Being a trustee

I started this blog to advertise a fundraising event for Age UK Barnet – the Secret Postcard Sale. At the time I was the Chair of the trustees and I still remain on the board. It is a cause which will always be close to my heart and a role which has given me, and taught me, much more than I have given the charity.

Without wanting to sound like some numpty contestant in a reality TV show, it has been a journey, so perhaps you will bear with me whilst I outline it for you.

It started in a small and serendipitous way. My sons came back from school after one of their first citizenship lessons and asked me, rather curiously, “What do we do for the community?” Out of the mouths of babes, as they say. So I told them that I occasionally helped their grandmother with fundraisers for the North London Hospice, not very often, and mostly when she needed muscle for lifting; I sometimes helped make the food or washed up at their rugby club, not very often, but sometimes; and I volunteered my time for evening sessions at Islington Law Centre, again not that frequently. They looked at me like they didn’t believe me, which they probably didn’t, as they were usually with their father when I did.

The question rather stayed with me. My mother had been a very successful volunteer in my childhood, chairing a local committee of the NSPCC. She, together with Rod Hull and a fundraiser at NSPCC HQ, dreamt up and organised the Children’s Royal Variety Show. She organised parties for children in care; ran pop-up charity shops and cakes sales; and took my brother and I to visit older people in local residential care homes. That sense of achievement, from being part of the place where you live, connected to more than just family, friends, and neighbours, was something I had clearly not shown my children.

So, when I saw an advert appealing for new trustees to join Age UK Barnet’s board, the question was there and I made the call. The advert said they were looking for someone who lived in the borough (tick), with a legal background (half a tick – I was working as a solicitor, but in the field of clinical negligence litigation, not as useful to a trustee board as someone with a background in contract or employment law). I knew nothing about running a charity or a business, but on the other hand I had worked as a doctor for 5 years, mainly in psychiatry, elderly mentally ill and old age medicine.

I met with the then Chair, Joan Penney, and Treasurer, Howard Fox, for a chat, trying not to feel overwhelmed by all the information they gave me about the charity, or terrified about the onerous duties of a trustee.  I went away with lots literature, including the Charity Commission’s Guidance

Joan and Howard had promised training, but I honestly did not know what I had to offer them. I attended a trustee meeting as an observer and it was, well, dull. Most of the meeting was taken up with the management accounts, which I struggled to follow. I don’t think I said a word and was the least experienced person there, so I was very surprised to get a call afterwards inviting me onto the board.

Except that it soon became clear to me that everyone joins a board with different skills and experience. My fellow trustees were generous with their knowledge and experience, so I learned about accounts and how to scrutinise them. I learned about business planning, investment (not a lot, but enough), negotiation, risk registers, and strategic thinking. I learned about the importance of “walking the floor” – seeing for myself what the charity I was putting my name to actually did as well as the importance of staying out of the day to day management, which was properly the role of the chief officer, but being available as a sounding board, just as my fellow trustees offered guidance to me. I learned that there was a time for decisive action and sometimes a time to watch and wait.

I learned a lot about board dynamics. From Joan, an extremely astute judge of people, I observed how deftly she ensured everyone had their say, weighing their views but also assessing the private reasons why one person might make a particular stand on an issue – the personality clashes, investment in a particular project or outside issues. I learned the importance of an individual phone call, coffee or lunch between meetings in building consensus. I learned about the importance of board dissension, because it is the people who disagree with a course of action who can show you the pitfalls and problems with a particular course of action. Board tension can be a creative force. But I also learned, through the gallantry and generosity of my fellow trustees, about the importance of board loyalty.

And I learned from the best. My Treasurer, Anthony Jackson, was formerly the financial director of DLR, three board members had founded their own companies, two of them later floating them as plcs. One had been managing director and chair of Rathbones Bank. The female board members had an extraordinary depth and breadth of experience in the voluntary sector. I found my role on the board, which I think was largely to provide energy, enthusiasm and ideas, lots of them foolish, but some of which could be honed into viable projects.

There is nothing quite like the sense of achievement you can get from building and supporting something for your local community, for being a voice for a cause you feel passionate about. Don’t get me wrong, in a period of cuts, when money is short, there are hard decisions you have to make, and they are all the harder because the stakes are high.

So, here is what I think.

Being a trustee is a huge responsibility. Don’t take it on unless you are prepared to turn up to the meetings (a board which is inquorate is paralysed) and make sure you have read the papers in advance so that you can make the best use of time in meetings.

Don’t be put off from joining a board because you think you aren’t expert enough – you can and will learn on the job. Strong boards are diverse: different ages, backgrounds, BMER representation, and skills make for a better board. It is true that accountants, lawyers, company directors, and HR professionals are always particularly welcomed, as are health and social care professionals if that is relevant to the charity, but a board made up of mainly retired professionals probably  will welcome someone with a working knowledge of social media or who can write a persuasive grant application. Asking questions because you don’t understand something is at the heart of good scrutiny.

It doesn’t matter why you become a trustee – because you care about a particular cause, because you want status in a community, or to strengthen your CV. There is no better way to learn how to run a company, than by actually running company, and most registered charities are also registered as companies. Once you are there then take the opportunity to learn but remember that, whatever your personal agenda or ambition, you have a duty to put your beneficiaries first. Keep that in mind and you cannot go too far wrong. The Nolan Principles for public life: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership apply as much to trustees as to politicians.

Your hardest job will be recruiting your successor.

If you want to be a trustee here are some links

If you are interested in becoming a trustee of Age UK Barnet please see here–campaigns/become-an-age-uk-barnet-trustee/

Equality and inclusion


This is a Year 5 maths lesson created by a brilliant teacher at Fairley House School. To be fair to this teacher, it is probably my son’s fault that they went down the gruesome Roald Dahl path. Their first lesson with him he announced that one maths lesson a week would be problems based on animals and each child would take it turns to pick their favourite animal. Joe got to pick the first week and decided that his favourite animal was not a dolphin or a kitten or a giraffe, but a leech. After a lively lesson not just based on “if one leech can suck 10ml of blood in an hour…” but descending to “If it takes 24 leeches minced up to make a leechburger…” the tone for the year was set.

My sons are dyslexic and dyspraxic; this lesson takes that into account. The words, font and layout are clear, writing is kept to a minimum, the pictures support the text and the humour keeps it engaging. It is, pretty much, a perfect way to teach children with those special needs. But it is also a great way to teach kids without SEN. All the things which make it work for those with dyslexia also make it work for any child.

And that is the point of reasonable adjustments. People without disabilities can use automatic doors and lifts just as effectively as people with them. High colour contrast between walls and floors or countertops help people with visual impairments but don’t stop people with 20/20 vision using a building.

I had a rather long conversation with two lovely older women with visual impairments a while ago, complaining about the male/ female signs on toilet doors in pubs. They explained that the signs were often too small for them to work out which was which. One told me that she either had to hang around outside to see whether a man or a woman came out, which was not always practical and tended to get her odd looks, or take a best guess. As she explained “I don’t really mind walking into the gents; I’m blind so I can’t see anything anyway, but the gents do seem to mind.” Not everyone is as brave as her, but really, is it so difficult to put a large clear sign on the door? A big sign is just as easy for a person without a visual impairment to read as a small one.

I have had conversations on Twitter where people have suggested that spending money on inclusion benefits only the few and raises the cost for everyone else. I don’t think that has to be the case. Good design takes into account special needs and disabilities from the outset, because if it works for people who have difficulties then it works for everyone. It improves your design or your policy.

There are two examples from Barnet Council that I want to highlight. The first is the disastrous pay-by-phone parking policy, introduced by Councillor Brian Coleman and the second is the shift to online council services.

Pay-by-phone parking was particularly difficult for older people. At the time the policy was introduced 40% of people over 65 did not own a mobile phone. For many this was because the phones were difficult to use, either because of a hearing impairment or loss of finger dexterity. Currently only 3% of over 65s have a smartphone. Some people felt vulnerable using their phone on the high street.  The policy did not work for them, and it did not work for a lot of other people. Footfall on the high street went down and so did takings from parking income. A lot of money was spent removing meters which are now being returned, slowly, to Barnet. If the equalities issues had been thought through at the outset this would not have happened.

Barnet, like most of central and local government, wants to move all of its services online. It is cheaper, is available 24/7 and there is the advantage of a written audit trail.

Here is a quote from Fujitsu’s research

At least three quarters of local government officers and local councillors think the use of the council website will increase over the next year.

Councillors are overwhelmingly of the opinion that their council is encouraging more people to use the council website for information on local service.

86% of councillors agree that having more people using the internet to access services saves their council money.

On the whole, councillors and officers alike think that local services provided through the council website are fairly accessible for different groups in their communities, including older people and the disabled.

These results also show how unaware local authorities are that over 60s in their constituencies are not advocates of their online channels, and would be unwilling to switch in the future. In fact, more than 70% of older people say that if more services were provided on the internet, they would still visit or phone their local council to receive services. So not surprisingly, a similar percentage also disagree with the notion that, ‘if more council services were provided online I would use the internet more’.

And herein lies the problem – the fundamental disconnect that currently exists between government expectations and older people’s behaviour.

If councils like Barnet want residents to use more online services then they have to do a number of things:

1. They need to encourage older people to go online, because if they don’t the policy will fail and the savings will not be achieved. That may well mean fronting up some money from their communications or IT budgets to fund lessons in digital inclusion and ensuring free internet access in libraries, including the ability to print off the web at reasonable cost.

2. They need to ensure that their website really is accessible, which means asking people who are not confident online to test it for them. Time outs and word limits, especially if they are not flagged, are a real problem for people who will assume they have made an error, not that the system was designed that way.

3. Ensure that multi-channel access – telephones, letters, face-to-face interaction – are still available to make sure that you do not alienate people.

If it works for older people who are not online, or not confident online, then it will work for everyone else.

Chair or chairman? Sexism, power and words

Last night Barnet Council voted to amend its Constitution. They voted to reduce the time allowed for public participation in meetings and they also voted to change the title of those chairing committees from “Chair” to “Chairman”.

Mr Reasonable was at the meeting and wrote about it here

According to the blog, the amendment was proposed by the committee chair, Councillor Melvin Cohen, and passed because of his casting vote; Conservative councillors voted for the amendment; Labour and Lib Dem councillors voted against it. Councillor Cohen is the Mayor this year but announced at the beginning of his tenure that he would not hold with usual form of Mayor’s being apolitical and intended to vote.

I think this is wrong.

I think using a gendered term for the role, like Chairman, sets up an expectation that the role will be filled by a man. Its the image that you see in your head when you close your eyes and say Chairman of the Board. It is normative – that image of the man in a suit, probably middle-aged and probably white, and almost certainly not disabled, is what comes into your head. Its what is normal, what you expect. Now try picturing a person with the title Chair. Not such a clear image is it? The word doesn’t carry the preconceptions about gender, and when that clear stereotype falls away so do the others. That image of who ought to fit the role affects both the people who are electing a chair and the people who apply for it.

The title of Chairman reinforces the idea that stereotypically masculine attributes and skills are what are needed to fulfil the role well. As chair of a trustee board for six years this is what I think makes a good chair: reading the papers and planning the agenda; keeping to time; listening; facilitating discussion, sometimes by playing Devil’s advocate, sometimes by ensuring everyone has the chance to speak; building consensus; making sure there are accurate minutes; and following up on action points. I don’t think there is anything particularly manly about any of those skills, but maybe, as Mrs Angry points out in her post here, we privilege some of those skills above others when we consider it fundamentally a man’s role.

I do think that a chair derives his or her authority from their skill, not their title. I certainly do not think that the addition of the suffix “man” to the title “chair” adds any power, authority or dignity to the office. I find it offensive that in 21st Century Britain people think power, authority or dignity is bolstered in this way, whether a man or a woman holds the role.

I do not think it is right that a committee chair should be forced, by virtue of the Constitution, to apply a gendered title to their role which they are uncomfortable with. I would not agree with the Constitution being changed so that the title of all committee chairs, regardless of gender, should be Chairwoman either.

I don’t know why Councillor Melvin Cohen felt it was important to propose this (in my view) retrograde amendment. I do know what supporters of the change on Twitter have said:

That it is only the “loony” politically correct or “loony” left who believe that the change of the term Chair to Chairman is wrong and promulgates or supports any gender bias. To which I would say that women have throughout history been told that there thoughts and feelings do not matter, that they are “hysterical”, the very origin of the word coming from the Greek word for womb. Disparaging people with insults really does not engage with the argument. The argument is clear – that words have power and that titles are political symbols. If that is untrue, why is it necessary to make the change FROM Chair TO Chairman?

The second argument that has been made is that Chair is an offensive term because it refers only to a piece of furniture. This is obviously nonsense. There is apparently no difficulty in using the word chair as a verb in this context – it is not a problem to say you are chairing a meeting. The use of the word Chair as an alternative to Chairman dates back, according to Wikipedia, to the mid 17th Century, so it has a long established history and is widely accepted. A much longer history than the word “selfie” and even more widely accepted than “bedroom tax” to name two new additions to the dictionary. We are completely comfortable with words having alternate meanings in our language – a bat can be a furry flying mammal or a piece of sporting equipment, without causing any confusion or outrage.

I wonder whether, in fact, this change is lawful. Councillor Alison Moore stated in the meeting that she personally found the title “Chairman” offensive. Given that there is a positive public sector equality duty not just to protect from discrimination but also to encourage people to participate in public life or other activities where their engagement is disproportionately low, it is difficult to imagine that this change does not breach the Public Sector Equality Duty. Surely a woman in her position should have the right to determine how she is addressed?

There are perhaps bigger issues and bigger battles in Barnet today. But if it is important enough to change from Chair to Chairman, then it is important enough to consider the wider implications of that change.