Posts Tagged civil liberties

Labour’s Equality Bill lets down gay employees

Islington has been at the forefront of gay rights campaigning, including the first gay rights demonstration – led by Young Liberal Louis Eakes – on Highbury Fields nearly 40 years ago.

Just last week I was having coffee with a supporter who first joined the Lib Dems because of our pioneering record, championing gay, lesbian and transgender rights when these weren’t the mainstream issues they are today.

The world has changed for the better. This year I was one of thousands dancing through the sunny streets at London Pride. Civil partnerships are a real breakthrough we should all welcome. But homophobic bullying and hate crimes are still a reality. And so is employment discrimination.

Labour likes to trumpet its record on gay rights. But now the EU is threatening the Labour government with a European court order and possible fine, because they are breaching EU employment equality laws, by allowing organisations to discriminate against gay employees on religious grounds.

This is bad news for employees and also for faith groups, who once again get unfairly characterised as prejudiced extremists. The reality is that most faith groups are responsible, liberal employers. Gay rights issues are a divisive issue within faith groups, not between faith groups and the rest of society.

EU law is not about taking the faith out of faith organisations. In a pluralistic society that would be unacceptable. EU employment law rightly allows religious organisations to apply a reasonable requirement based on religion. So faith schools could require some or most teachers to be of that faith. (Although when St Andrew’s CofE school, where I’m a governor, appointed our new head, we followed the ‘Christian dentist’ approach: when you have a toothache, do you go to a good Christian, or a good dentist?)

Faith groups should not be allowed to discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation. And indeed under EU law they are not. But the UK Government is resisting this. Our local Lib Dem MEP Sarah Ludford has highlighted Labour hypocrisy on this issue. As she says, “It is extraordinary that Harriet Harman’s new Equality Bill does nothing to remedy this continued illegal discrimination, which would have warded off Brussels action. Her bill indeed seems to be more about gestures than real change.”

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Eve of conference

Tomorrow I’ll be travelling to join thousands of Lib Dems from across the country in Bournemouth for our party conference.

Last night, Islington Lib Dems previewed the conference debates at our latest Pizza & Politics evening.

The Liberal Democrat party conference is unusual among the 3 main parties in that we do actually set party policy; it’s not just a rally for the faithful. That means ordinary members can shape the policy of the party; and it also means that occasionally we have a row. Or if not a row exactly, a genuine debate.

On most issues, unsurprisingly, Lib Dems tend to agree with each other, even on issues that are divisive between the parties (and within other parties). We’re generally against ID cards, against Heathrow expansion, and pro Europe, to pick three examples. So what’s there to debate?

Well, the media will no doubt try to talk up a potential row over the Fresh Start paper. In fact, it’s a clear and in my view unconcentious statement of Lib Dem priorities for the General Election manifesto. (The most dodgy aspect is the Somerfield-type colour scheme. And don’t they have a ‘fresh’ slogan too?)

The agenda has lots of heavyweight debates, on globalisation, climate change, civil liberties – big issues, but no big rows.

So last night we teased out three smaller issues where we might have a bit of a barney in Bournemouth.

The first is whether the Advertising Standards Authority should have rules requiring that airbrushed images are identified as such: and whether such images should be banned in publications aimed at young people. The former is not a problem – it’s recently become the rule for those mascara ads that showcase false eyelashes – but the latter caused a real debate. Yes, young people’s self-image is fragile: but is it right to censor pictures in response? And is this really the biggest issue we face? We remain divided on that one.

The second is whether employers should adopt the practice of blanking out the names of job applicants to weed out sexist and racist judgements. Generally we saw no harm in that, although there was some scepticism as to whether it would do much good. Attending a a girls’ school or being on the committee of your local mosque could also be a bit of a giveaway.

Both these proposals are part of a package of ideas in the Real Women policy paper.

Then there are Mosquitos, the machines that generate a highpitched sound causing distress, and possibly damage, to younger eardrums. Should they be banned? Although Islington Council has tried it once – and decided against it in future – I think using Mosquitos is a terrible idea. And I’m not alone.

My own home has been under siege from groups of youths in the past, and we’ve often had the neighbourhood police on speed-dial, so I don’t deny there’s an issue; but I just don’t think indiscriminate torture techniques are the answer.

Other communities have found that shining pink light or playing Mozart is just as effective, and a considerably more humane way to discourage young people from hanging around. Not that hanging around in a public place is necessarily a problem in itself – as long as they are not a nuisance to others.

I think it’s another symptom of the current obsession with the idea that technology can solve essentially human problems. It’s not things that help people, or change people; it’s other people. It’s not mosquitos we need but bluebottles.

What mosquitos and air-brushing have in common, of course, is that they are at the crunch point where protection and freedom conflict. They also show some of the very mixed messages that our society sends young people. We’ll protect your eyes while assaulting your ears. Should be an interesting conference….

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In which I become an FCO advisor….

Email received: Foreign Office (FCO) (foreignoffice) is now following your updates on Twitter.

Not sure if I should be worried or flattered or both. However if I start updating my Twitter status with advice on international relations, you’ll know why.

More seriously, the use of Twitter to get messages out of Iran, for example, is something that should inform our Government, even if regional media cannot. Iran, after all, has more journalists in gaol than any other country.

Meanwhile you too can follow me and the FCO at Twitter.

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Daily dose of children’s DNA

Liberal Democrats have long been concerned about the police keeping the DNA of innocent people.

And it’s particularly unacceptable when the DNA belongs to children. Now my colleague Jo Shaw in Camden has got figures from the police there using Freedom of Information requests. Camden are adding on average 350 samples a year from children to the National DNA Database – that’s almost one a day. Jo points out that at present, if the child is over 10, their DNA sample can be retained on the database indefinitely, whether or not they are convicted (or even charged) with any criminal offence.

This is all very timely as the government are consulting about retention of DNA right now.

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Police letter in Tribune

The Tribune has printed my letter on the G20 policing and the need for more police accountability.

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Greg on G20 demo

I blogged before about my colleague Greg Foxsmith and the policing of the G20 demos. Now Greg has written up his views for Lib Dem Voice.

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Peaceful protest under threat

My post on cyclists turning left at red lights got picked up as part of the Liberal Conspiracy overflow, if that’s the right way of putting it, thanks to Lee Griffin.

More interesting in the round-up are the various commentaries on policing and the G20 demos. One colleague who was caught up in it is Greg Foxsmith, a lawyer and Islington Lib Dem councillor; during the protests, he was hit on the chest and thrown to the ground by a balaclava-clad policeman, and also witnessed the same officer attacking an elderly man with a baton.

Greg has a good letter on the challenges to peaceful protest in this week’s Islington Tribune. Oh, and he also agrees that cyclists should be allowed to turn left at red lights….

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