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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Suspicious minds

I often end up eating supper in front of a late night episode of ‘Law and Order’ or ‘CSI’ – not ideal given all those autopsies.

Mobile phones have become intrinsic to the plots: not just for the characters to contact each other, but tracing calls, connecting witnesses, and even locating suspects by triangulating their signals. Last weekend, we went to see ‘Duplicity’: good film, great plot – and impossible without mobile phones. No wonder Orange sponsor the movies.

My mobile isn’t very fancy. But in my life as in the films, it’s become indispensible. If I pop out to post a letter, I take my keys – and my phone. That’s my choice. The dramas feature mobiles as potential accessories to crime: drug dealers’ throwaway phones, illicit photos, even bomb triggers. It never occurred to me that not having a phone might be suspicious.

Then I read this piece by David Mery (a fellow supporter of NO2ID), reporting two cases where not carrying a mobile was given as grounds for arrest. In Germany, an arrest warrant for Andrej Holm said “The fact that he – allegedly intentionally – did not take his mobile phone with him to a meeting is considered as ‘conspiratorial behavior’.”

And in France a group of students were arrested because, as the Interior Minister said, “They have adopted the method of clandestinity. They never use a mobile phone. They managed to have, in the village of Tarnac, friendly relations with people who could warn them of the presence of strangers.”

In just a few years, mobiles, like TVs, are seen as a universal norm. My friends without TVs get endless hassle from the licensing authorities who seem unwilling to believe anyone can live without the box. Although with iPlayer etc, traditional TV sets are now more dispensible than ever.

David Mery, meanwhile, has his own experience of being seen as suspicious. In 2005 he was arrested for having a combination of a beard, a backpack and a laptop on the tube (geeks of the world beware). Oh, and having a mobile phone.

He has since been one of the few people to succeed in getting his DNA off the police database. In the world of ‘Law and Order’, cases are tied up within the hour. In the real world, it took David over two years to clear his name.

As he concludes, “Aren’t the Police supposed to keep tabs only on convicted criminals and individuals under investigation? So even though the Police concluded I was arrested without a cause, otherwise they would have had a duty to prosecute me, personal information remains in the Police national computer; which can be shared with Europol and Interpol, in other Police databases around the world. Isn’t a state that keeps files on innocent persons a police state?

“This gradual erosion of our fundamental liberties should be of concern to us all.”

You can sign the Lib Dem petition to take all innocent people’s DNA off the national register here.

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Community policing, not big brother

The death of Ian Tomlinson at last week’s G20 protests was a tragedy that has shocked many people. It raises worrying questions about police accountability.

Liberal Democrat MPs were in attendance to observe both sides of the protest. David Howarth MP has called the incident ‘sickening’, and is demanding a full-scale criminal investigation into Mr Tomlinson’s death. In tense situations, we expect the police to set the best example, not descend into the worst behaviour.

It’s important that communities have good relationships with the police who serve us. Here in Islington, the Safer Neighbourhood Teams in each ward meet regularly with the public to set their ward priorities, and they produce regular news letters reporting back to the community.

The SNT meetings that I’ve attended have produced some real results, from extra security measures on estates to deploying youth workers in a particular area. In St Mary’s ward, after reports from concerned residents, a drug dealer was arrested and has now been charged with possession with intent to supply a class A drug.

But too often I still find residents telling me of times they contacted the police – to tackle anti-social behaviour, or worse – only to find that the resources are just not there to respond.

Just this week one woman told me of a recent case where her car was attacked by drunken youths on a Friday night. She was too frightened to intervene. She called the SNT: not on duty til Monday. She called 999: they never came (like my own experience).

The next day she had an apologetic phone call and a crime number to give her insurers. Not quite what she wanted. And should she have to go to public meetings to get the police to do their job?

We need more accountable community policing, responding to local people’s needs and priorities; not a faceless force deployed by central government on a big brother agenda.

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Pitta and politics

On Wednesday night I was heading up the Holloway Road on the world’s slowest bus (thank you blue car parked in the bus lane) for our Pizza Pitta and Politics evening.

Each month Islington Lib Dems have a Pizza & Politics event where we discuss politics and, er, eat pizza. This month’s was a bit different – a Pitta & Politics evening, joint with the (Holloway-based) Dialogue Society, with yours truly in the chair. Our topic was how you tackle violent extremism in a liberal society.

I still remember where I was on 9/11 and 7/7 and the sense of panic, horror and anger as the news came in. Islington is a highly diverse borough, and we lost more of our citizens and workers in the 7/7 attacks than any other individual borough, so these issues affect our area deeply.

I was incredibly proud of the reaction of ordinary Londoners and the emergency services to the attacks. But I’m not proud of everything our Government has done since, from appearing to endorse torture flights to undermining the same rights that the terrorists want to destroy.

Tackling extremism is something on which the Dialogue Society, formed by 2nd generation British-Turkish Muslims, has done a lot of work. It was an unexpectedly topical topic, because among all the revelations about MPs expenses (how many homes do you need to be in the Home Office?), Jacqui Smith has just launched the second round of Contest, the Government’s anti-extremism strategy.

Dialogue’s concern is that in attacking the minority of extremists head-on only serves to polarise them more, by casting them as ‘the other’. Young people like to join groups that are supportive yet seem subversive: most are harmless, some are not. Bigging them up only glamourises them. And at the same time it gives negative images of Islam to the rest of us, which make a bad situation worse. Dialogue prefer to promote the positive tenets of mainstream Islam – peace and justice – both to Muslims and to non-Muslims, achieving what they call ‘de-radicalisation by default’. Instead of talking up extremism, you starve it.

We certainly did not starve – fantastic Turkish food, and food for thought from our speakers; Dialogue director Ozcan Keles, Meral Ece OBE and leading MEP candidate, and international academic Jonathan Fryer. Meral reminded us that challenging extremism is everyone’s responsibility and that only a tiny handful of Muslims are extremists. Yet it’s the 20 demonstraters in Luton who make the headlines, not the peaceful majority. Instead of the 4 Ps of the Government strategy, Jonathan proposed an Ode: outreach, dialogue and engagement. We even had Simon Hughes on a video link from Westminster.

We were enthused by how much of an agenda liberal Muslims and Liberal Democrats have in common, from defending free speech to encouraging democratic engagement – and challenging the stereotype that we’re both full of men with beards.

Next steps include mentoring future council candidates (provoking puns about Young Turks) and future events with the Dialogue Society, with the help of the Liberal Democrat Friends of Turkey.

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