Thursday, January 11, 2007


If they get Muslims to speak up too they could win this one.

Church groups are to challenge in court gay rights legislation that would make it illegal for hotels to turn away guests because of their sexuality. Christian organisations say that the regulations interfere with religious belief and are seeking a judicial review of the regulations in Northern Ireland, where they took effect this month, before similar moves planned for the rest of the United Kingdom.

An attempt to scrap the regulations in Northern Ireland failed in the Lords last night by 199 to 68, a majority of 131. Critics of the regulations say that they will force guest houses, schools, churches, nursing homes, printers, adoption agencies and even wedding photographers to compromise on moral objections to homosexuality or face being sued. But Stonewall, the gay rights group, accused religious groups of creating a false picture by citing examples that would not arise or could not lead to legal action.

The application for a judicial review is due to be heard in March at the High Court in Belfast. It has the potential to embarrass the Government, which is split over the introduction of legislation in England, Wales and Scotland.

Ruth Kelly, the Cabinet minister responsible for equality legislation, is an active Roman Catholic. She has infuriated colleagues by delaying the regulations, ostensibly because of the volume of responses to a consultation launched in March last year. She now has just three months to publish her department's formal response, release the regulations in draft form and secure the approval from the Commons and Lords in time for their planned introduction on April 6. The already tight timetable could be thrown into doubt if the court hearing in Belfast finds procedural flaws in the process followed in Northern Ireland and triggers similar legal moves to challenge Ms Kelly's regulations.

Among the most sensitive areas is accommodation, where operators of larger guest-houses, hotels or boarding houses could be sued for discrimination if they turn away a gay couple saying that their presence might offend other guests, or if they refuse them a room with a double bed.

The Northern Ireland regulations offer an exemption to people who take in lodgers in their own homes and to small guesthouses that double as the proprietor's home, but other forms of accommodation fall firmly within their scope. There have been a number of cases of discrimination against gay couples in tourist accommodation, boarding houses or hotels, usually in rural areas, according to Keith Etherington, a solicitor and member of the Gay and Lesbian Lawyers' Association. "This is where the law will bite: in the services industry, the small hotels where couples have turned up and the hotelier has not realised it was two men, or two women, and they have been turned away. If that continues, then the couple will now have a right of action against the hotel."

The regulations for Northern Ireland are particularly controversial as they introduce an additional concept of harassment caused by conduct that might create "an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment". Ministers have said that this addition is due to the special circumstances of Northern Ireland, where equality legislation has a different process due to the sectarian tensions in the Province, and they have pledged that the regulations for the rest of Britain will deal solely with discrimination and not harassment.

Ben Summerskill, the chief executive of Stonewall, said that most of the examples cited by critics were implausible or inaccurate. The regulations also had an exemption for doctrinal religious belief, he said. "It has been slightly frustrating as we have had over the past few weeks people getting exercised over things who almost appear not to have read these regulations," Mr Summerskill added. Other supporters of the laws, including the Trades Union Congress, urged ministers not to give ground.



An editorial from "The Times" below

When a Christian hotel owner refuses a bed to a gay couple on the basis that sodomy is a sin, it is difficult not to feel that prejudice is simply masquerading as conscience. For a commercial enterprise to put up a sign saying "no gays" should be as unthinkable as one saying "no blacks". That is an indication of just how far the majority view has shifted in the past 20 years.

The question is how quickly the law should move in formalising this change in our culture. The Government's sexual orientation regulations (Sors), the subject of heated debate in the Lords yesterday, are designed to outlaw discrimination against homosexuals and transsexuals - in Northern Ireland and eventually, it is assumed, throughout Britain. Rarely have Christian, Muslim and Jewish groups been so stridently united as they were yesterday, in arguing that the law has already gone far enough. They fear that further attempts to appease a gay minority will disciminate against religious ones.

It is still part of the faith of some Christians, Muslims and Jews that homosexuality is a sinful practice. It is natural that some followers will regard that belief as practical guidance for living. But in claiming that worshippers will be cast "back into slavery" by new gay rights, some black church leaders have gone too far. The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Birmingham has accused the Government of an "aggressive reshaping of our moral framework". But the desire to stamp out discrimination reflects a new moral framework that society has been fashioning gradually over decades.

Religious beliefs should be respected. But it does not follow that those who hold them should always be free to discriminate. Sacred texts cannot be rewritten, but they can be reinterpreted. Reformist leaders of all faiths are working hard to build a cultural tolerance inside their institutions that reflects that in the outside society.

The real danger is that excessive regulation, or vague wording, could make their task more difficult. It should be no more acceptable to refuse a product to a homosexual than it should be to mock people because of their religion. But the Sors apply widely, into education as well as goods, facilities and services. Education could prove particularly tricky. While the actual employment of teachers is subject to separate provisions, from which faith schools are exempt, questions will inevitably arise about the extent to which teaching itself might be termed discriminatory. Pupils must be informed of how different religions view homosexuality. But what about the teacher who believes that marriage is good, abortion and homosexuality bad? Will it be lawful to express that personal view?

Another question is whether the regulations could spell the end of state funding for charitable organisations. Lord Mackay of Clashfern believes that an adoption agency could refuse services to same-sex couples under these regulations, but could not receive public money. This potential dilemma deserves more thought from politicians who have encouraged faith groups to provide more charity.

The law has played a vital role in securing equal rights for homosexuals, and indeed in helping to change perceptions dramatically. The Government deserves much credit for this. But these new regulations are too vague. The question now is how best to encourage those few who still practise discrimination to love their neighbours, of whatever orientation.


Attack on Political Freedom in England

To the British Left, having views critical of immigration means that you must be hounded out of your job:

"Anti-racism campaigners are to protest at the English National Ballet after a dancer admitted being a member of the British National Party. Principal dancer Simone Clarke was revealed to be a member of the party by the Guardian newspaper last month. She has since defended her beliefs, and says the BNP is "the only party to take a stand" on issues like immigration.

Campaign group Unite Against Fascism (UAF) is calling for the 36-year-old ballerina to be sacked. It is planning to protest outside a performance of Giselle, in which Clarke takes the lead role, at the London Coliseum later this week...

The BNP currently holds more than 50 council seats in the UK. On its website, it portrays itself as the only party "prepared to defend our traditional principles against the politically correct agenda" of Tony Blair and David Cameron.


The BNP Ballerina

A cautious comment below from the Daily Mail

Giselle is perhaps the most romantic of the classical ballets and always among the most popular. It is a tale shot through with passion and fear as the heroine, a naive peasant girl, is first seduced and then betrayed by a fairytale prince. So when gifted lead dancer Simone Clarke takes the title role in the English National Ballet production at the London Coliseum next week, all eyes will naturally be on her. But she will not be under the spotlight for her bewitching elegance and poise alone. No, the audience have a startling extra reason to focus their attention on Simone - because just days ago she was named as the BNP Ballerina.

The dancer's membership of the British National Party was exposed by a Guardian reporter who had gone undercover to join this unpleasant organisation and it came as a nasty surprise all round. The BNP is certainly repellent, with its knee-jerk hatred of foreigners and history of organised thuggery, and there is something in the juxtaposition of dance pumps and bovver boots that many will find impossible to comprehend, particularly in the liberal world of the arts. But Simone's explanation for why she decided to join the party last year - given here for the first time - cannot be simply brushed aside as a foolish error, let alone ignored.

The reason is summed up in one word: Immigration. It has, she told the undercover journalist who exposed her, "really got out of hand' - and today she maintains the BNP" are the only ones to take a stand' on the issue that she believes troubles the majority of voters, even though such views have led to her being branded a racist and a fascist. "Using the word immigration is now a greater crime than cold-blooded murder," she claims.

But her story has wider implications. When one of the country's principal ballerinas, a 36-year-old woman who spent much of her recent working life as the Sugar Plum Fairy, decides to join the British neo-fascists, there is an argument that something has gone badly wrong with democratic British politics. On the eve of two more accessions to the EU - Romania and Bulgaria - she serves as an alarming, if graceful, reminder of the danger the far Right now poses in a country increasingly disillusioned with the political centre ground.

Naturally, the disclosure has been hugely controversial but Simone has, since the news broke, refused to make any public comment on her views, retreating instead to the West London home she shares with her partner and co-dancer Yat-Sen Chang - who, extraordinarily, is a Cuban immigrant whose father is Chinese. But in her only interview about her political beliefs, she refuses to back down or apologise for her views, despite the torrent of criticism they have attracted. Simone insists there is no contradiction in her choice of a foreign partner or in her decision to work with one of the most ethnically diverse ballet troupes in the world. And she says that, for her, the issue is disarmingly simple: mainstream politicians are failing to tackle the issues that worry people most, while the BNP is promising firm action.

By her account at least, she was by no means brainwashed - in fact it was her foreign-born partner who spurred her to sign up. "I joined about 18 months ago," she says. "Yat and I were watching the television. As usual I was moaning about something that I had seen on the news and he just said, "Well, stop moaning and do something about it." "I didn't really know anything about the BNP but they had come up in conversation a few times because they had just won some local council seats. "We went on to the computer and we looked them up and I read their manifesto. I'm not too proud to say that a lot of it went over my head but some of the things they mentioned were the things I think about all the time, mainly mass immigration, crime and increased taxes. Those three issues were enough to make me join so I paid my 25 pounds there and then. "I think the BNP are honest. They're not trying to dress up what they want, which is change on these issues."

Simone is certainly honest. More to the point, she is increasingly typical of the albeit tiny band of seemingly respectable, middle-class voters that the reshaped, carefully 'branded' BNP is anxious to woo. The tatooed skinheads who once dominated the party are nowhere to be seen, in public at least. Instead it is led by a savvy Cambridge graduate in a suit. That leader, Nick Griffin, advocates the repatriation of Muslims, denies the Holocaust and believes that black footballers who represent the national team cannot be classed as English.

Yet crime and immigration are real and understandable fears, and they provide a fertile recruiting ground for the BNP that extends well beyond the traditional ranks of the deprived and disaffected. By focusing, instead, on the politics of Middle England, Griffin has managed to win 55 council seats in England. According to a recent ICM poll the BNP could attract seven per cent of the UK's total vote in a General Election. The veneer of respectability might be paper-thin but it is enough to attract people like Simone.

She was born in Leeds, where her father Alfred was a maths teacher and her mother Janet a secretary. The family grew up in a small semi-detached house on the outskirts of the city, where Simone attended the local Catholic school before moving, at the age of ten, to the Royal Ballet School. She won one of just 23 places at its academy, White Lodge in Richmond, West London, from a total of 4,500 entrants. With her coal-black eyes and raven hair, Simone is a world away from the BNP supporter of old with his shaven head and tattooed knuckles. She is proud of her Yorkshire roots and visits Leeds often to see her four-year-old daughter, Olivia, who lives there with her grandparents while Simone and Yat are away on tour.

Leeds is a traditional recruiting ground for the BNP, yet Simone's views were formed from her years in London. Her father has never been a BNP supporter yet he, too, has now become so disillusioned with the alternatives that he is considering joining the party as well. Simone, who is bright if politically naive, does not view the BNP as a racist organisation, even though it would seem directly opposed to her relationship with Yat - who, as a foreigner, is even banned from joining. In fact, she does not see her views as extreme in any way, arguing that she is no more than a normal person with normal views and a limited appetite for political argument.

"I'd never been a member of any party before, although I'd voted Conservative a couple of times,' she explains. "I'm not a particularly political person but I read the manifesto and I took it on face value. Sometimes it feels as though the BNP are the only ones willing to take a stand. "I have been labelled a racist and a fascist because I have a view on immigration - and I mean mass immigration - but isn't that something that a lot of people worry about? "As with all parties, you can't agree on all things. You have to take the good bits and ignore the bad bits and that goes for any party. When I think about it I wonder, "Well, who's going to look after people like me?" People who work hard, who like to celebrate Christmas; people who are law-abiding citizens who pay their taxes - more and more of them - but feel that no one is speaking for them."

She gets little encouragement from the news. Although Labour claims that asylum applications have been cut by 68 per cent since 2002, figures from the Migration Watch lobby group suggest that in total, immigrants are arriving in Britain at the rate of one a minute. No one pretends that immigration is in any way under control. And, despite Britain's jails being full to bursting, the same is true of crime, which blights the lives of rich and poor alike.

So perhaps it is no wonder that, despite the get-tough rhetoric of both Labour and the Conservative Opposition, even the most impeccably respectable are starting to think about alternatives, even if only a tiny minority choose the BNP. "I consider myself normal," says Simone with just a hint of a Yorkshire accent. "I just got sick of seeing what goes on in the world, of how much unfairness there is in the system. "I suppose I first started becoming aware about ten years ago. I remember seeing a story about someone who had been driving a car illegally. I don't know where he was from but he had no licence and he ran over and killed a little girl. He was fined 65 pounds. If I don't pay my TV licence I can get fined 1,000 pounds, yet he can take a girl's life and get fined 65. "I don't know why it's OK to be shot for your mobile phone and the thief be given a few months in prison but I'm not allowed to say, 'I don't agree with that'."

Simone met Yat seven years ago when she left the Royal Ballet to join the rival English National Ballet. If the contradictions in the relationship seem obvious to most, to her they are invisible. "We are a happy family. I think it's really silly when people make a big thing about me being with Yat as well as being a member of the BNP,' she says, arguing that she has no problem with foreigners who come here and work hard - such as her colleagues in the ENB, where only one other principal dancer is British. "It's not about removing foreigners. It's about border controls. Because of terrorism we do have to know who's coming and going. For the people with jobs it is possible to do that. We know where they are because they pay their taxes and are fully paid-up members of society. "The other problem I have is that Britain isn't really very big. And it's an island. I really cannot see the logic of allowing so many people in."

But for all her defiance, she remains a reluctant mouthpiece. "My life has changed,' she admits. "Everything will be different now. I will be known as the BNP Ballerina. I think that will stick with me for life. I'd rather it wasn't like that but I don't regret anything. I will stay a member. "I am angry because I don't think it should be public knowledge who someone votes for. People are easily offended by political views, whatever the persuasion, and for that reason I think it should stay private. "As far as I'm concerned my conscience is clear. As for the journalist who spent months snooping around, he'd find more dirt under his fingernails than he'd ever find on me. "I've never been clearer in my head that I'm moving in the right direction and at the right time. I've had nearly 300 emails supporting me from all over the UK and from as far away as Australia, America and New Zealand. Out of those just three were horrible, calling me racist."

She also says she has had little reaction from her ballet colleagues. "In the end nobody really said anything at work,' she says. "I think it's because there are a lot of foreign dancers who have probably never even heard of the BNP." But if Simone is angry to be dragged on to this sort of public stage, and if the main political parties are alarmed at the growing reach of the far Right, the reaction to the exposure in the Welshpool headquarters of the BNP is likely to be rather different. Here, quiet satisfaction is more probable - quiet, because that is how the 'troops' have been instructed to behave in Nick Griffin's alarmingly disciplined march on Middle Britain.

The BNP must be delighted to see its manifesto of hatred endorsed by the sort of upright individual who would once have turned away on principle, especially when the individual in question is young, female and on pointe. So when the curtain comes down at the Coliseum next week and the departing members of the audience hurry out into the cold night air, they should perhaps remember this: that if the marvellous Giselle they applauded to the roof is in any way typical of the thousands in the auditorium, and that if the fear of crime and immigration continues to follow its predicted course, it will be a rather bright 2007 for Nick Griffin and his cohorts.


A lottery is OK to select pupils but evidence of ability is not

Schools will be able to allocate places by “lottery” to ensure fairness between all applicants and to stop middle-class families from dominating the best secondaries, under a new admissions code for England. The mandatory code, which will come into force in September 2008, is being introduced to tackle “back-door selection”, where schools cream off the best students and pick pupils by social background. Many of the best state schools have become largely the preserve of families who can afford to buy homes nearby or expensive uniforms or who can show their commitment to the school through generous donations.

Labour MPs demanded that the code be toughened during the revolt against Tony Blair’s school reforms last year. Alan Johnson, the Education and Skills Secretary, said that the code would create a system where all children, regardless of their background, had a fair opportunity of gaining a place at the school they want to attend. “[It] puts mandatory measures in place to ensure that this is the case at all schools, including the few schools that persist in using unfair or unnecessarily complex arrangements that can disadvantage some families and reduce the life chances of thousands of children,” he said.

Lottery systems, which are already common in countries such as the United States, could be used to counter the house price effect by giving children from all backgrounds a chance to enter a draw for places. “Random allocation of school places can be good practice, particularly for urban areas and secondary schools,” the code states. “It may be used as the sole means of allocating places or alongside other oversubscription criteria. Random allocation can widen access to schools for those unable to afford to buy houses near to favoured schools and create greater social equity.”

However, it adds that the practice might not be suitable for rural areas, where schools draw children from a wider geographical area and where children who did not win a place through the lottery draw might otherwise have to travel a considerable distance to an alternative school. A spokesman for the Department for Education said that lottery systems were most likely to be used to allocate places left over after the use of other admissions criteria, such as distance or membership of a faith group. They could be open to challenge by local parents who lost out for not benefiting the local area, he added.

The code will also ban covert forms of selection such as requirements for expensive school uniforms, sportswear or costly trips, unless arrangements are put in place to ensure that parents on low incomes can afford them. It will also ban admission interviews. Comprehensive schools will still be allowed to operate sibling policies, which allow children automatically to follow older brothers and sisters into the school.

However, in the case of the 39 partially selective state schools, which select more than 10 per cent of pupils, the schools must ensure that their admission arrangements do not exclude families living nearer the school. Sarah Teather, the Liberal Democrat education spokeswoman, said: “This new tighter code is welcome, but it will only make a difference if it is rigorously enforced. Heads and governors must realise that they will not get away with ignoring or flouting the new rules.”


Bungling British spooks: "The Director-General of Britain's security service MI5 told senior MPs there was no imminent terrorist threat to London or the rest of the country less than 24 hours before the July 7, 2005, suicide bombings in London, in which 56 people were killed. Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller gave the assurance at a private meeting of Labour whips at the House of Commons on the morning of July 6. Last month Dame Eliza announced she was to retire in April. That announcement came weeks before details are expected to be made public of an MI5 operation in which two of the July 7 bombers were kept under surveillance but not arrested."

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