Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category
The government yesterday backed a Lords amendment to remove the word ‘insulting’ from Section 5 of the Public Order Act.
Section 5(1) of the Act reads as follows:
(1) A person is guilty of an offence if he —
(a) uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or
(b) displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting,within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby.
However, the law as it stands has been open to abuse and led to a number of arrests that have been widely condemned.
Amongst the most well-known case was that of a 21-year old student who spent a night in a cell during 2005 after calling a police horse “gay”.
Another example involved a teenager being arrested in 2008 after describing Scientology as a “cult”, while Jamie Murray, who runs a Christian cafe in Blackpool, was threatened with arrest if he didn’t remove bible scriptures that a customer had complained about, saying that some verses were insulting.
Examples such as the above, as well as many more that have been reported in the media over the last few years, not only reveal the way in which a minority of police officers deal with such petty complaints, but also just how thin-skinned so many people across the country have become.
Quite how the nation reached a stage where complainants feel the need to involve the police in such trivial matters is a mystery.
Imagine if everybody took the law so literally. Imagine if calling someone else’s favourite football team “rubbish” was to lead someone to feel so insulted that they needed to contact the police. Imagine if the police took a complaint such as that seriously.
Thankfully there looks to be an end to any legal option for the easily offended, or who make petty complaints for simply having disagreed with a person who has a different opinion.
In December, the House of Lords voted overwhelmingly in favour of an amendment which would remove the word ‘insulting’ from both clause (a) and clause (b).
During a second reading of the Bill in the Commons yesterday the Home Secretary, Theresa May, announced that there was no reason for the Government to challenge the verdict in Lords vote.
More serious offences involving verbal abuse or threatening behaviour will continue to be covered by the new wording, ensuring that the removal of the word “insulting” cannot lead to a law that allows for much more serious offences to be carried out.
It’s taken years of campaigning to achieve, but the upcoming change in the law represents another victory for common sense.
It’s no wonder that so many people get fed up with religion.
Headline news detailing division within denominations is hardly the sort of thing which would attract non-believers to attend church. Instead, all that such public rows will achieve is cause people outside of the church to become even more turned off than ever – and no one should be surprised.
The arguments over church structure, and ongoing political disagreements within the Church of England are doing nothing to represent what Christianity should be about, and that’s the sad result of some of the stories in the news this week.
For anyone who is either unfamiliar with the Christian faith or against it altogether, it would be easy to look at the kind of arguments taking place amongst senior figures in the Church of England and use it as a reference to what Christianity is.
Far more useful would be to completely ignore the sort of issues that have gained publicity over recent days – such as the debate over women bishops – and explore what being a Christian, a follower of Jesus, is really about. (A book like CS Lewis’s Mere Christianity is as good as any if you are someone who truly wishes to understand the faith)
One story that hasn’t had quite so much coverage is that of an interview involving Fabrice Muamba, broadcast on Premier Radio on Monday.
Many people will be aware that Muamba was the Premier League footballer who collapsed during a match last season, and whose heart stopped for 78 minutes.
During the interview, Muamba spoke of his faith generally, and a miracle recovery which he believes God to have had a hand in. He spoke of his intentions to carry out the plans that he believes God has for his life – to testify what God has done in his own life, and to share the gospel and tell others of how God can work in their lives too.
It’d be nice if that was a message which was more often communicated by the church, rather than bitter arguments over the particular structure of the church that each of its members want in place.
There are plenty of other people out there like Fabrice Muamba, each of whom have their own testimonies.
It’s important that testimonies like that of Muamba and others are heard far more loudly than the unhelpful church squabbles that continue to gain more coverage than they deserve, and which provide a thoroughly inaccurate and unhelpful view of what the Christian faith is all about.
First it was Nick Clegg, and now it is Andrew Mitchell.
In the space of a month, the leader of the Liberal Democrats and the Chief Whip of the Conservatives have hit the headlines for derogatory or offensive remarks made – or in Clegg’s case, that he prepared to make.
Clegg managed to escape without too much fuss after a speech he had prepared for Parliament referred to opponents of gay marriage as ‘bigots’. The leaked speech generated negative press coverage and was amended before being delivered.
Andrew Mitchell, meanwhile, was caught up in a row with police who he is claimed to have referred to as ‘plebs’ and ‘morons’ according to the officers’ reports,
The comments came after a long and frustrating day, Mitchell said yesterday. And without condoning the behaviour of the man who is responsible for party discipline, no one’s immune to losing their cool once in a while – even politicians.
But it’s the reaction from the two men that is the real issue in both of these cases.
Following criticism in the media over the wording of the speech that Nick Clegg was to deliver, he removed the word ‘bigot’ and went on to claim that he actually has plenty of respect for the views of others who are against gay marriage. Indeed, he wrote to the churches to insist that he would never describe such people as being bigoted.
The response of Andrew Mitchell was to deny using the words attributed to him, though as a storm erupted over what was – or wasn’t – said, he hasn’t managed to enlighten anyone yet as to what specifically his comments were.
The reason Mitchell might be expected to offer a bit more of an explanation is because he has strenuously denied using words which the police officers involved have reported – and that puts the integrity of either him or the police into question.
Being able to trust those in government should be taken for granted, even if we don’t all agree with the respective policies of each party.
Unfortunately, many people around the country simply don’t trust the politicians in charge. Incidents such as those which have involved senior MPs this month will do little to change that perception.
The government is a quarter of the way through a 12 week consultation on its plans to extend marriage to gay partners in the UK.
As with many other of the current government’s policies to date, public support appears to be in the minority and nowhere is this highlighted better than in the number of people who have signed opposing petitions on the issue.
Since launching on February 20, the Coalition for Marriage petition, which is campaigning for the definition of marriage to remain unchanged, has attracted over 384,000 signatures. In contrast, at the time of writing just 38,353 signatures have been added to a counter petition, Coalition for Equal Marriage, which was created only two days later on February 22.
Based on those figures, those in favour of a change to the law defining marriage are outnumbered by more than ten to one.
The argument for change centres around equality, but civil partnerships were created exactly for that reason.
The Oxford Dictionary defines marriage as “the formal union of a man and a woman, typically as recognized by law, by which they become husband and wife“.
There can’t therefore be discrimination in reserving marriage for one man and one woman when that is the very definition of what marriage means. Marriage is male complementing female and becoming one. Any other definition simply doesn’t equate to marriage.
If couples who have entered into a civil partnership believe that they are lacking certain rights or privileges which are afforded to married couples, and believe that the rights of a civil partnership should closely mirror those of a marriage, then that’s the debate to be having.
To feel a need to fight for the redefinition of marriage is another thing entirely – and not only unnecessary, but it’s also unwanted by a large number of people.
The government’s controversial Health and Social Care bill has passed all of the political obstacles in its way, and is set to become law within the next month.
The whole process which has been involved in getting the bill through has given much insight into the level of power held by our politicians – power to ultimately do whatever they please.
Amongst the professional bodies that represent the frontline medical professionals working in the NHS, virtually all were against the bill.
Organisations that demanded that the bill be completely withdrawn included the British Medical Association, Royal College of General Practitioners, Royal College of Nursing, Royal College of Midwives, UK Faculty of Public Health, Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, Royal College of Radiologists and the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy.
Others raised major concerns and concluded that they couldn’t support the bill in its current form, whilst members of the Royal College of Physicians, Royal College of Psychiatrists, Institute of Healthcare Management and Royal College of Obstetricians & Gynaecologists all voted for the bill to be withdrawn.
To discuss implementation of the Bill, David Cameron held a Downing Street summit last month. All of the carefully selected guests – representing a number of professional bodies within the health service – were known to have expressed some degree of support for the Bill, or had shown willingness to work with the government.
However, of the seven known bodies who were at the summit, three later called for a total withdrawal of the bill, with the others all expressing major concerns.
It’s fair to say that although there are individuals who support the bill, the many professional bodies representing every health worker in the country are strongly opposed to the reforms.
Having already been pressured into making at least one high-profile U-turn on policy, the government was never going to back down on its plans for the health service – even in the face of almost total opposition from those who, quite frankly, know far more about the running of the NHS than politicians.
Such a massive reorganisation of the health service was also contrary to the pre-election mandate of both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats and that’s one reason why the Bill needed to be pushed through so quickly, giving the government as much time as possible to implement the changes before the next general election.
Ahead of the final vote on the bill, the coalition government faced fresh calls to publish a transitional risk register, a document detailing the known risks involved in restructuring. In defiance of the Information Commissioner and the Information Tribunal – both of whom had ordered the risk register to be published – the government refused. In any case, the government hold the power to veto such a court ruling.
And that should no longer surprise any of us. Because once elected, politicians can do just as they please.
The government’s current system of e-petitions has been the subject of a number of high profile campaigns since its introduction in 2010.
For anyone unfamiliar with the concept, it is quite straightforward.
A member of the public can create a topic on which they wish to petition the government. It can relate to almost any matter, and is directed to the relevant government office. Once a petition is set up, other members of the public can add their support.
On reaching 100,000 signatures, a petition is passed to the government’s Backbench Business Committee, who will then determine whether the issue should be referred to Parliament for debate.
It is the last part of that process which many people fail to understand, and instead believe that reaching the threshold for consideration is itself a guarantee that a debate will take place.
Writing in the Guardian this morning, Dr Kailash Chand, chairman of Tameside and Glossop NHS and the man who created an e-petition calling on the government to drop its Health and Social Care bill, criticised the government for not debating the petition in the Commons having seen it attract over 165,000 signatures.
The problem is that Chand, like others before him, has failed to understand that there is no absolute guarantee that a petition will be debated – and nor should there be. Any such move would undoubtedly open the floodgates to an avalanche of petitions on subjects that should never reach Parliament in the first place, and would give the nation’s public the kind of power which it is simply not intended to hold.
Chand is entirely right to continue fighting for the government to scrap its reform of the NHS. An overwhelming majority of professional bodies have positioned themselves in complete opposition to the plans, also calling for them to be dropped. Even within the coalition government itself there are MPs who are opposed to the Bill, or at the very least are campaigning for significant amendments to be made.
It’s hardly surprising then to see a large number of the public joining critics elsewhere in petitioning the government to abort the controversial Bill, though in light of an arrogant stance taken by David Cameron and Andrew Lansley to ignore the advice of medical professionals who overwhelmingly oppose the Bill, it’s unlikely that the government would be any more willing to back down based on a public petition – particularly when the 165,000 names represent only 0.4% of the electorate.
There have been benefits of the e-petition system, most notably in the case of a request for the government to issue a full disclosure of documents relating to the Hillsborough disaster.
But the sooner that the system is properly understood, and that people realise it isn’t a tool guaranteeing that they can spark a Parliamentary debate, the better.
Preliminary findings of a government report into the freedoms of Christians in the UK were released this morning.
The inquiry, overseen by Christians in Parliament was undertaken in response to the difficulties Christians in the UK face in being able to live out their faith, and also because of a series of high-profile cases which have seen Christians subjected to police action due to objections from those who simply don’t share the same beliefs.
The government and the police both come under attack in the findings due to their lack of understanding in dealing with issues of a religious nature, particularly where complaints of being insulted are used against Christians simply due to a disagreement in beliefs.
Whilst Section 5 of the 1986 Public Order Act still gives police powers to act if someone feels insulted, the report suggests that the bar has been set too low over when this clause is used. As mentioned in a blog post on religious tolerance earlier this month, a government review is currently in progress over the wording of Section 5, due to a series of cases where it has been wrongly used to prosecute.
Labour’s 2010 Equalities Act also comes under fire in the report for failing “to deal with the tensions between different strands of equality policy”, while the courts have been accused of creating a “hierarchy of rights” in their decisions of some cases.
Amongst a number of recommendations was the restructuring of the Equality and Human Rights Commission in order to better represent religious beliefs.
Opponents of Christianity may not agree with aspects of the report, entitled ‘Clearing the Ground’, though if it is a step towards ensuring that Christians are as free to voice their beliefs as other groups, then it is to be welcomed.
On the subject of the National Health Service, which is attracting greater media coverage as the government’s reforms near their most crucial stage, I read last night of a senior health professional who is facing disciplinary action for publicly adding his voice to the wave of criticism over the bill.
Presumably the concerns of the professional in question are, like most critics, based on fears that the planned restructure will affect the quality of treatment and care throughout the Health Service.
The action being taken against him by NHS management is based on their stance that it is “inappropriate for individuals to raise personal concerns about the government reforms” and comes just two days after David Cameron held a summit on the NHS reorganization with only the professional bodies who have offered some degree of support for the reform in attendance.
Less than two months ago, the Department of Health set up a free helpline for whistleblowers who felt it necessary to report issues of poor practice within the health service in order to help raise standards.
Of the helpline, Health Secretary Andrew Lansley said: “This will play an important role in creating a culture where staff will be able to raise genuine concerns in good faith, without fear of reprisal.”
Perhaps “genuine concerns” can only relate to practices currently being undertaken and cannot be raised in advance of anything which is feared to be of no benefit to patients.
If that is the case then whilst the professional at the centre of the disciplinary action may be forced into silence for the meantime – along with any other professionals who fear for the future of the NHS – the whistleblowing hotlines could be rather busy if or when the reforms do get the go-ahead.
As David Cameron holds a special summit at Downing Street today, there are fewer signs than ever that this is a government prepared to listen.
Following initial criticism of the plans for widespread NHS reform, a high profile “listening exercise” was conducted between April and July of last year in order to address some of the concerns and encourage greater support for the reforms.
Since then however, the number of professional bodies to withdraw the tentative support they originally offered the government has increased, revealing an opinion that strongly suggests there are very few professionals involved in the NHS who have any confidence in the reorganizations proposed by Health Secretary Andrew Lansley.
Neither Lansley nor Cameron appear able to convince doubters that the plans, in their current form, are necessary or will result in better quality of treatment in the NHS.
Indeed the concerns amongst professionals are that the Bill will affect patient care, with specific examples given of areas where it is felt that patients will be more at risk.
Some of those examples are believed to be detailed in the Risk Register, a publication produced by the Department of Health and originally due for release last Autumn, but held back by Andrew Lansley despite repeated calls by the Information Commissioner for the government to publish the document.
Critics argue that the Risk Register is being kept private due to its inclusion of information which would threaten the government’s chances of seeing the bill passed. A debate is set for Parliament on Wednesday to vote on its publication.
It is unclear whether the outcome will affect the government from forcing through its deeply unpopular plans.
What is certain is that unlike the forestry issue, there will be no last minute U-turn by David Cameron on the NHS despite his continued difficulties in reassuring MPs, medical professionals and voters that the reforms proposed by his government – and in some cases already underway – will benefit the health service.
If the bill does go through, there will be huge pressure on NHS staff to meet the extra demands placed on them at the same time as they are expected to make massive financial savings within a tightening budget.
But after avoiding answering questions by MPs when pressed on some of the problems with the bill, and having failed to listen to or address the serious concerns expressed by the likes of the British Medical Association, who have now been left out of discussions held by David Cameron over the implementation of key aspects detailed in the reforms, it could be the Prime Minister himself who will feel the most pressure to ensure that public confidence in the health system remains strong.
A number of articles have appeared in the media recently which have reported on instances where people voicing religious views have found themselves the subject of attention from various authorities.
You don’t have to look far in order to find opinions expressed by Christians that have resulted in complaints being made.
Though in many cases, the complaints have not been because the comments have involved direct or personal abuse, nor spoken in a threatening manner. The views in question have merely been a different view or belief not shared by the complainant.
Less than two weeks ago, there was the story of a Christian charity in Bath who had been told by the Advertising Standards Agency that they were not permitted to use the phrase ‘God heals’ on any of their material.
And by the weekend, the news of a High Court ruling forbidding the saying of prayers before local council meetings in Bideford made front page headlines in the national press.
Last month, David Burrowes, a Conservative MP for Enfield Southgate, found himself the target of a social media campaign after voicing his intent to vote against legislation to introduce gay marriage. Within a couple of days of David’s comments, Phillip Dawson, who is treasurer of the local Conservative Association and also a trustee at Christ Church Southgate, set up a Facebook group entitled “Send David Burrowes MP a message on gay marriage” which has been used to gather support amongst others who share Phillip’s differing views to those of his MP.
On an identical issue in October, Adrian Smith found himself removed from his position at the Trafford Housing Trust and placed in a different role within the organisation – with a salary drop of £14,000 – for disagreeing on his Facebook page with the move to legalize gay marriage. He didn’t abuse anyone, and went on to clarify his Christian held beliefs by referencing the Bible’s teaching on marriage. Despite this, he was reported by a colleague who took exception to Adrian having the right to voice his beliefs and the organisation subsequently took action which is currently the subject of a legal challenge.
So much for a tolerant society.
Critics of Christianity, or indeed of any religion, will argue that by opposing gay marriage or other such issues which cause so much controversy, people are denying the right to equality for anyone campaigning in support of them.
But it has come to a point where it’s becoming more and more difficult to disagree on any issue, and the right to even have a different belief on such matters is itself coming under attack.
Taking the subject of gay marriage, the Bible, the teachings of which the Christian faith is based on, states that marriage is for one man and one woman. Those who don’t believe that are entirely free to disagree. The same people are also free to campaign for it to be legalised, if they feel so strongly about it, but there has to be respect for anyone who has strongly held beliefs that differ to their own.
It’s at that point where tolerance in the UK is breaking down and highlights the problem with understanding the difference between tolerance and disagreement.
Being tolerant of people who have different beliefs and who live their lives in a different way is entirely right. From a Christian perspective, the Bible instructs everyone to be treated with love regardless of whether we agree with everything that person might think or do.
However, that doesn’t and shouldn’t ever result in everyone being expected to support any viewpoint that may be popular in society or conform to a belief that simply isn’t shared. And it shouldn’t be the case that voicing a view which may be unpopular amongst a majority can lead to someone finding themselves subjected to personal attacks, or even arrest.
There have been some encouraging things said by Conservatives which would help to address some of the issues which have led to the disputes referred to.
Earlier this week, Conservative peer Baroness Warsi spoke out of the “intolerant” nature of the “militant secularisation” which is present in Britain, and of the importance in allowing people the right to religious identity.
At Westminster, Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, vowed to overturn the High Court ruling on the holding of prayers in council meetings by introducing a change in law within a week. He clarified that no-one is forced to sit through prayers, although that was true in the case of Bideford council, with the complainant on that occasion claiming that he was “too embarrassed” to leave.
In a further move, a review of a controversial section of the 1986 Public Order Act is underway, with the government considering the removal of the word ‘insulting’ under Section 5 of the Act, something which has led to a number of cases where people have been arrested due to another individual not agreeing with a comment made.
These are all welcome moves but in a society which supposedly preaches tolerance and equality, there shouldn’t need to be so many measures to protect free speech and differences of opinion. It could even be argued that the measures are only required in order to protect against some of the very people who themselves fight for tolerance.
But then that kind of tolerance is, of course, only ever one-sided.