Leeds MP Alex Sobel apologises for meeting 'controversial' population size charity

A Leeds MP has apologised after he was criticised for meeting a charity which advocates limiting population growth to save the planet.
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Labour Leeds North West MP Alex Sobel met director of Population Matters Robin Maynard in Westminster on Wednesday.

Mr Sobel retweeted a tweet which favourably described their meeting, but has since apologised and deleted the message after considerable criticism on the social media platform.

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Population Matters, which counts David Attenborough and Chris Packham among its patrons, "campaigns to achieve a sustainable human population, to protect the natural world and improve people’s lives," according to its website.

Alex Sobel speaking at a protest over funding for young people with special educational needs and disabilities outside Leeds City Art Gallery.Alex Sobel speaking at a protest over funding for young people with special educational needs and disabilities outside Leeds City Art Gallery.
Alex Sobel speaking at a protest over funding for young people with special educational needs and disabilities outside Leeds City Art Gallery.

It adds: "We promote positive, practical, ethical solutions – encouraging smaller families, inspiring people to reduce excessive consumption and helping us all to live within our planet’s natural limits.

"We believe everyone should have the freedom and ability to choose a smaller family. We support human rights, women’s empowerment and global justice."

But the charity, previously known as Optimum Population Trust, has come under consistent criticism over the years for what have been described by critics as anti-immigration, right-wing policies.

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The charity has called for 'zero net-migration' to the UK and in 2015 suggested the incoming government could scrap child benefit and tax credits for the third and subsequent children in UK families.

They also argued the UK should not accept Syrian refugees at the height of the country's civil war.

A Population Matters spokesman said: "Population Matters now repudiates the Syrian refugees statement and has not campaigned for zero net migration since 2011."

Typically, critics say Population Matters seek to blame people poorer, developing countries rather than rich, Western countries and their resource-intensive economies, for what it sees as unsustainable population growth - something the charity denies.

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In a 2015 article on the charity, openDemocracyUK co-editor Adam Ramsay said: "Telling people that overpopulation is the primary problem therefore functions to shift implicit blame for environmental destruction from rich white men, who in reality are mostly responsible for and profiting from a global system built on stripping the earth, to poor black women who have children within that system."

Criticising Mr Sobel's meeting, University of Leeds academic Helen Finch described Population Matters policies as "ecofascist and racist" in a series of tweets.

The charity replied: "Population Matters, which is a registered charity, does NOT hold the views ascribed to it in this tweet, and wholly repudiates them. Anyone tagged in this tweet wishing to understand our positions can read them on our website."

In a statement, Mr Sobel said: "I agreed to meet the organisation in good faith and without undertaking due diligence by researching the organisation and its history.

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"The discussion centred around women and girls’ education and access to family planning/contraception at home and in the UK. This was in the context of the environment, poverty reduction and health—similar to the UN’s approach to these issues.

"Meeting with organisations does not necessarily translate to support for those organisations or for every policy or value they prescribe. That said, I was not aware of all the controversial aspects of this charity and I am grateful that they have been highlighted to me online."

Mr Sobel referred to his record on supporting refugee and asylum seeker rights and to his own family, who fled the Nazis, adding "supporting the rights of refugees is not just a political issue for me but a deeply held personal conviction."

Mr Sobel added: "I made a mistake and I am sorry.

"Whilst I hope that people can acknowledge I acted in good faith and within my role as an MP, I gave the impression that I support issues that I most certainly do not. That said, I am glad that it has opened up a wider discussion on an important issue."

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Population Matters director Robin Maynard said: "Population Matters is an international charity which actively supports diversity, empowers choice, endorses human rights and promotes global justice. We are honoured to work with many champions of diversity, women’s empowerment, and ecological justice.

"We were therefore delighted to have a constructive and positive meeting with Alex, in which we agreed on the importance of addressing population as an issue impacting upon human wellbeing and the environment.

"In particular, we agreed on the huge benefits of promoting positive solutions like women’s empowerment, universal education and modern family planning.

"So we were shocked that the tweet received a barrage of false accusations and abuse directed at Alex and Population Matters, misrepresenting the positive discussion we’d had, and mischaracterising our organisation, its values and principles.

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"Of course, we’re disappointed that Alex didn’t contact us before issuing his statement to check the facts and to reaffirm that we share the same humanitarian, compassionate and ethical values.

"The Twitter storm has instead shut down any such discussion and seeks to demonise anyone with the courage to raise it.

"This was a missed opportunity to stand up for open dialogue and reasoned debate, to condemn offensive and wild accusations, and to underline why addressing population is consistent with compassionate and progressive values.

"We remain strongly supportive of the excellent work Alex is doing on environmental and justice issues, and we would be pleased to talk to him again at any time."