Friday, 15 December 2006

If I want a girl rather than a boy, is this wrong?

Today I have an article in the Times, which you can read on their pages by following this link:,,6-2505381,00.html

However, if you don't want to move on (!), then I've republished the text here.
Before you add comments, please note that I have kept my arguments specifically to the UK - so there's no point warning me about potential problems in India or China. I have also proposed that sex selection should only be allowed after the first child - which would remove the issue of certain cultures ending up only with boys. And finally, if you do read on, you will see that I honestly don't think most people will do it - it's far too intrusive. I wouldn't have - but I don't have a problem with people who really want to....

Could someone please explain why parents shouldn’t be able to choose the sex of their children? The imminent shake-up of our fertility laws — as set out in yesterday’s White Paper — is set to impose a total ban on choosing the sex of a baby for non-medical reasons. But I’m still waiting for a good reason why not.
The main argument against appears to be the “what next?” scenario. It goes something like this: if the Government allows parents to choose whether to have a boy or girl, this will be just the start and soon everyone will demand a tall, blond, blue-eyed Aryan-looking “designer baby”. What rubbish — particularly if the people in question are small, dark and, like most parents, keen on seeing some kind of family resemblance in their offspring.

Some people’s neuroses are not a good enough reason to prevent parental choice. Neither are claims that the existing delicate gender balance will be skewed, particularly towards boys — although another way around this would be to offer sex selection only from the second child onwards.

However, recent research has suggested that British people favour an equal number of boys and girls (the researchers at the University of Giessen interpreted this as a social preference for a “balanced family”). In fact, the numbers saying they wanted more girls than boys or vice versa were almost identical, suggesting an almost negligible effect on boy-girl ratios. In any case, offering people the choice of a son or daughter doesn’t mean that everyone will take it. Indeed, most won’t even consider it, as it means undergoing intrusive assisted fertility treatment. To do that, you would need much more than a simple whim.

Alan and Louise Masterton’s young daughter, Nicole, died in a fire in 1999. As the parents of four boys, they were desperate, they say, not to “replace” her, but once again to have a female dimension in their family. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) wouldn’t let them try sex selection here, so they tried — albeit without success — in Italy. However, they still believe that they were right, that people should be able to balance their families, and that all it does is bring much-wanted children into the world (as opposed to the thousands born “naturally”, but unwanted every year).

I know of numerous families with two or three sons or daughters who would like to have another child, but only if they know it will be of the other sex. I can’t say I have a problem with that. We’re facing a demographic disaster in this country and need all the children we can produce. Why shouldn’t some parents receive a little extra help?

Tuesday, 28 November 2006

Is it just me or does the future sound scary?

Apparently there will be a 38 per cent increase in those aged 85 and over in the next ten years.
Not only that, but a new Treasury document also points out that, as the baby boom generation ages, they will make up a far more demanding elderly population than the one we have at present. In other words, these people – who did not live through the depression - have higher expectations. Having spent their working lives in generally good health and with what is described as "higher material comfort", they are unlikely to be happy living on small pensions or suffering poor public services (in other words, a bus pass won't be good enough for these oldies; they, quite rightly, want an impressive bus service to go with it).
This shouldn't be bad news, but it strikes me as a bit scary. I have two young children, and as far as I can tell, the world in which they are growing up is not as rosy as I could have hoped. Too many different problems seem to be accumulating at the same time.
The main one, of course, is safety. The world does not seem to be as safe a place these days - and I say that having grown up with the IRA threat in London. At one stage, there were weekly bomb alerts while I was studying at the LSE, but all these were heralded by warnings, and we were lucky to live in times where there were no suicide bombers on the mainland.
Leaving safety aside, there are so many other issues that seem to be getting worse, not better. If my children go to university, they will leave burdened with huge debt (who can say how much it will cost to attend a good university in 2020?). They will then be lucky to find anywhere affordable to live, and they will have to fund the rapidly growing elderly population I mention above. If the numbers of people over 85 is rising that quickly in a decade, what about in two decades or more?
It seems as if my children’s lives will be much more limited than mine, whether for good or bad reasons (I’m not trying to be judgemental here). They will have to work later in life, spend less and save more. They’ll also be encouraged not to travel abroad because of climate change (bang goes that gap year in Australia).
Environmental changes are something I haven’t even touched on, but they could be potentially catastrophic. Honestly, it’s enough to make even the least neurotic of parents worry, at least a little.

Wednesday, 22 November 2006

The Chancellor's taxing decisions

Gordon Brown is said to be delaying plans to increase council tax because he’s apparently worried about a “damaging backlash”. He should be. The ideas which seem to be coming from the council tax review are seriously worrying.
I know this topic may not sound particularly sexy, but what happens to our council tax is important, and you should care about it. You should also care that the Chancellor’s apparent response is to delay publishing Sir Michael Lyons’ inquiry into local government finance because he’s worried about a negative reaction? Delaying something is hardly the stuff of strong decision making. Wouldn’t it be more sensible to address what it says and decide whether to implement it?
Sir Michael began his inquiry back in 2004. He has yet to report, but leaked suggestions would increase council tax bills hugely. And that, of course, is on top of the huge increases in council tax since Labour took power in 1997. Average bills have more than doubled – to £1,053.
If changes happen, then some – such as those of us who live in London and the South East - seem more likely than others to suffer.
Many people seem to think that if you live in London and the South East, then you’re incredibly lucky because your house will have greatly increased in value in recent years. But unless we wanted to move out London and the surrounding area completely, I’m not sure that lucky tag is true. All that’s happened is that our houses have moved into a higher stamp duty bracket – thus making moving very difficult – and that the people who used to be able to afford to live in Notting Hill or Belsize Park now have to look further out to be able to afford anything – some are even looking in our humble neck of the woods. And that changes the whole complexion of an area (not always for the best).
Salaries have not doubled or tripled in the last decade, but houses have. So where does that leave us? Stuck where we are, happy to be owning something, but sad that people like us – on reasonable but not huge salaries – can’t afford to move into the area.
And if people like us do want more space, we can’t afford to move, so we add extensions or convert our lofts or old coal cellars (I am fascinated by this as it is going on across the road from where I live, and I am desperate to see the results.) All these additions push our mortgages ever higher, but I shouldn’t complain, because we are lucky to be on the housing ladder (I dread to think how much houses will cost when my children grow up. If property prices continue to increase as they have, I can’t ever see them owning anything).
The council tax review is said to be looking into reassessing council tax bands – and so increasing what we currently pay because our house is obviously worth more than it was when the bands were set. It is also suggested that taxes may be imposed according to the “extras” which the property has, such as those loft conversions. This of course means penalising the extras that many people have added on becomes they can’t afford to move. In fact the government should be thanking these people – they, at least, are not helping fuel the property boom.
Most worryingly, the government is said to be considering a tax which would be a percentage of the value of the house. This may sound ridiculous, but it has already been implemented in Northern Ireland where some people have found that they simply can’t afford to pay the huge increases in their bills.
Why doesn’t anyone seem to realise that the value of your house does not necessarily equate to your disposable wealth? If you are retired and live on a pension, then how on earth are you supposed to find thousands of pounds of money to pay higher council taxes with? Is the government suggesting that people whose houses now happen to be in areas which have rocketed in value, should move?
I find this whole issue really exasperating. We don’t have a great deal of disposable income – mine goes on childcare in any case, but that’s a different story – and if council tax is going to be put on the value of our house, then we are going to have real problems. It’s not even as if we are benefiting from our house being worth a lot! Not unless we move hundreds of miles away – from our family, school and friends.
No wonder Gordon Brown is concerned about a backlash. When the poll tax was scrapped and the council tax implemented, Michael Heseltine said that it should “reflect people’s ability to pay and be seen to be fair”. Is this really true of the council tax? I don’t think so. Perhaps it’s time for a local income tax.

Sunday, 19 November 2006

Interview with the young star of British comedy drama Sixty Six

There's currently a British film out called Sixty Six. I did an interview with its young star, Gregg Sulkin. Please take a read!

By Sarah Ebner

Child stars do not often have a happy tale to tell. Some descend into a drink and drugs hell, while others “divorce” their parents or spend years trying to live up to their early celebrity.
The latest in a long list of youngsters to make it onto the big screen is 14-year-old Gregg Sulkin, who takes the lead role in the new British comedy-drama Sixty Six. But Sulkin is an unusual child star. For one thing, he’s not even sure that acting is his dream.
“I’ve been brought up playing football and always wanted to be a footballer,” says Sulkin, who’s on the books at Spurs. “I love playing football and I love how 30,000 people sing your name.
“Actually my mum wants me to play tennis, because she likes how it’s an individual game, and my dad wants me to play football. I definitely love acting, and if you told me I had to give one of them up, I don’t think I could. But maybe people give you more credit when you’re an actor, rather than a footballer. I wouldn’t mind being an actor…I think.”
With all his sporting talents – Sulkin has also been a junior British champion in Eton Fives - it’s ironic that in Sixty Six, Sulkin plays a geeky non-sportsman by the name of Bernie Rubens. Bernie’s Bar Mitzvah is approaching fast, but it just so happens to be scheduled for the day of the World Cup Final in 1966. As England progress through round after round, it looks as if football is set to ruin the best day of Bernie’s life.
“I couldn’t identify Bernie with me,” admits Sulkin. “I just trusted Paul (Weiland), the director. Maybe that made it easier. If Bernie had been the same as me, perhaps I might have over-acted”
It should be easy to hate Sulkin. After all, he has been blessed not only with a great deal of talent, but he’s good looking too. However, he seems genuine (he admits he’s not the fastest footballer in the world, but says he “knows when to pass”), is charming (it’s difficult to resist those dimples) and shows no obvious sign that he’s becoming obnoxious. He even sends his mum flowers and claims he’s not completely perfect.
“I’m not good at everything,” he explains. “I’m not good at maths.” He’s also not even the most famous actor in his class at Highgate School. That honour goes to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s Freddie Highmore.
Sulkin was cast in Sixty Six as an acting novice. In fact, he had only acted once before and was seen so much as a footballer rather than actor, that when casting directors visited his school, he wasn’t even put forward for the role.
Instead his father, Graham, took him to the audition as an “experience”. He wasn’t expecting to actually get the part and had to audition four times before having a screen test.
“I was surprised every time they asked me back” he says disarmingly. “But I really did enjoy the auditions. I liked how there was pressure on you. I liked how if you didn’t do well, then that was it.”
He obviously adored the entire experience and still talks enthusiastically about his screen parents Helena (Bonham Carter) and Eddie (Marsan, who played Reg in Vera Drake), whom he describes as being “like my hero”.
“The people were just so amazing,” he says. “I was scared of meeting Helena because she was so famous and I thought she might not talk to me. But when I met her, she gave me a kiss and a cuddle and she was so down to earth. She’s just like a beautiful mum.”
When I first met Sulkin, his enthusiasm was palpable. He had just finished making the film, described it as the best time of his life and was desperate to do more acting.
“The night it all finished, I was just so sad, because I wanted to do it for ever,” he said emotionally. “I just loved every minute of it
Eight months later, he’s still keen on the acting, but, because he’s back playing football (he had to stop when he was filming), he’s enthused about that too. And that’s despite being an Arsenal fan who’s now playing for the “wrong” North London club.
The intervening months were not always easy, as Sulkin failed to get other acting roles. More recently, however, he has done some filming for Channel 4 and got his confidence back.
“I was worried,” he says. “I wondered if I was doing something wrong in the auditions and whether Paul had seen something other people couldn’t see.”
Right now, he’s looking forward to the film’s premiere, although, having been to a screening already, he’s still in shock about seeing himself on the big screen.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “All that work and it ends up as an hour and a half.”

Wednesday, 15 November 2006

Blair's last Queen's Speech - but what legacy has he left?

So, Tony Blair has delivered his final Queen's Speech. Is now the time to assess his legacy? It seems strange that he may well be remembered solely (or at least mainly) for the Iraq War. After all, he obviously had so many New Labour plans for change when he came to power on that real wave of optimism in 1997. Sometimes I feel almost sorry for him that they have been swallowed up by the disaster of Iraq.
When I was at university, we discussed Thatcherism and people had an idea of what that word meant, whether they agreed with it or not. I'm not sure if Blairism is more than just a word. It doesn't seem to have a real ideology behind it, but maybe that's because Blair hasn't managed to do all he wanted - even though he's had a pretty good run (a decade next year - almost as long as Thatcher). Perhaps expectations were set too high in 1997?
Yes, it's true that Blair was responsible for devolution, but that doesn't exactly seem to have worked as planned. His other great promises, on education and the NHS, are yet to be fulfilled. It's astonishing that this government has pumped so much money into different areas, but that the results are still unsatisfying. Today the Queen's speech has talked about crime, immigration and climate change. There's obviously still an awful lot to do, but will Blair be able to leave behind the legacy he wants or will Gordon Brown, and perhaps even David Cameron, transform the political agenda?

Tuesday, 14 November 2006


Journalists everywhere need to be on the Web, or so I'm told. Finally, as 2006 comes to an end, I am joining them, although I'm not sure that the world has been holding its breath and waiting for this moment.

I am a journalist who has worked for a variety of national newspapers and magazines, as well as the BBC. I write features and opinion pieces, on whatever topic takes my fancy, or that of the commissioning editor.

I am married, live in North London and have two young children, a girl and a boy. I work part-time and am freelance. This is one of my bugbears - surely it should be easier for women to get good part-time jobs. Otherwise you are losing a whole swathe of people from the job market, simply because they want to balance work and their offspring.

More later.