Saturday, July 12, 2008

Victory for British Christian registrar who refused to carry out queer `weddings'

A Christian registrar who was harassed and discriminated against after she refused to carry out same-sex civil partnership ceremonies has won a key legal battle. Lillian Ladele, 47, said that she was treated like a pariah by colleagues at Islington council in North London after she said that she could not carry out the ceremonies as a matter of religious conscience.

An employment tribunal found that the council showed no respect for Ms Ladele's rights "by virtue of her orthodox Christian beliefs". Employment lawyers said that while the case set no binding legal precedent, it would make councils much more likely to give weight to the religious views of employees. The decision outraged gay rights campaigners, who said that it "sanctions the right of religious people to discriminate".

Ms Ladele, who had held her $62,000-a-year job for almost 16 years, could receive thousands of pounds in compensation at a further hearing in September after the tribunal found that the behaviour of her colleagues had "the effect of violating Ms Ladele's dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment". The tribunal decided that gay rights should not be allowed to "trump" the rights of those with religious beliefs and said that the council's other registrars were able to provide a "first-class" service to same-sex couples without Ms Ladele's involvement.

The ruling said that Islington council "placed a greater value on the rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual community than it placed on the rights of Ms Ladele as one holding an orthodox Christian belief".

Ms Ladele, who is now expected to return to work, wept as she told the tribunal that her bosses ordered her to perform the ceremonies or face dismissal for gross misconduct. She said: "I felt harassed and victimised. I was being picked on on a daily basis." She added: "This is a victory for religious liberty, not just for myself but for others in a similar position. Gay rights should not be used as an excuse to bully and harass people over their religious beliefs."

She was applauded last night by the Christian Institute, a Newcastle-based charity that funded her case, and the Evangelical Alliance. Don Horrocks, head of public affairs at the alliance, said: "This decision underlines that, despite some recent claims to the contrary, freedom of religious conscience must be protected by law in the same way as any other human right. "We would call on local politicians to take note and live up to the challenge of this benchmark decision."

Ben Summerskill, chief executive of the gay rights group Stonewall, said: "Public servants are paid by taxpayers to deliver public services. They shouldn't be able to pick and choose who they deliver those services to. Doubtless 40 years ago there were moral objections to mixed-race marriages. Quite rightly such objections would no longer be entertained." Peter Tatchell, the human rights campaigner, said: "Lillian Ladele claims she was won a victory for religious liberty. No, she has not. She has won a victory for the right to discriminate."


Foolish Muslim pandering in Britain

Rebel the puppy only ever caused offence with his ill-timed calling cards and habit of stealing the window cleaner's chamois. Now, the German shepherd is at the centre of a political-correctness row. Rebel is the nearest thing Dundee has to a celebrity since Danny Wilson split up. His popular training "blog" details mishaps like bringing down the firearm squad's computer system by chewing a cable. It was no surprise when he appeared on a campaign postcard for a new helpline nestled inside a police hat. He is the fluffy face of the force, with lashings of the "awww" factor.

But not everyone found his floppiness irresistible. A Labour councillor called Mohammed Asif suggested the campaign would "not be welcomed by all communities because there was a dog on the cards". He didn't say Muslim communities - but that is what he meant. The headlines were all about how "Muslims were outraged" by the picture and Tayside Police apologised.

Responses ranged from exasperation at "barking mad" political correctness to anger: "If Muslims don't like dogs then they should go and live where there are none! We must stop bending over backwards to please these people, they certainly wouldn't do it for us - enough is enough!"

Inevitably, many asked why Pakistani shopkeepers, who profit from the sale of pornographic magazines, streaky bacon and alcohol, could then object to a postcard intended to inform the public. But so far as I can see, the only outraged Muslim was Mohammed Asif. His ill-judged intervention has done as much - perhaps more - to damage community relations than the hapless terrorists and their burning Jeep last year. They can attack our airports, but leave off our puppies!

There is no law against pet dogs in the Koran. The Hadith, or tradition, says they are unclean, you should not keep them in the house and must wash after contact with them. I have a few friends who share that view, but who are not religious in the least. They are probably correct when it comes to hygiene. But they don't avert their eyes from doggy pictures because they dislike canines, and neither do Muslims. The real issue here is the oversensitivity of the authorities. Their apology has whipped up more hatred than Rebel could if he'd nipped Mr Asif's ankle.

The apology is symptomatic of a general jumpiness. Today we report an absurd recommendation by the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland that sniffer dogs wear slippers when searching Muslim homes for drugs and explosives. Who came up with this? Everybody knows you take your shoes off when entering a Muslim home so as not to bring in anything unclean. That would presumably apply to the dog's muddy slippers. So shouldn't the handlers put clean ones over their paws once they cross the threshold, just to be sure? It rather interferes with the element of surprise. By the same logic, handlers should take their boots off and waste more time. And are we to ban female officers from raiding Muslim homes, because they are wearing police-issue trousers (sexy!) or simply because they are women?

It is all so unnecessary. Iran, not a country known to be slipshod in its adherence to Islamic doctrine, uses sniffer dogs from France to tackle drug-smuggling. Dog teams were flown to Pakistan from around the world to search for survivors trapped in rubble after the 2005 earthquake.

Official bodies desperate to show their politically correct credentials succeed only in sowing division with such silliness. In March, a CD-Rom version of the Three Little Pigs was rejected by the obscure Whitehall department that recommends educational technology in schools. "The use of pigs raises cultural issues," it huffed and puffed.

During the last football World Cup the governor of a prison in England tried to ban her officers from wearing Cross of St George lapel badges, in case Muslims were reminded of the crusades. Last year a circular was sent to NHS employees in Glasgow urging them to ignore the tea trolley during Ramadan and to fast in support of Muslim colleagues. The passport service rejected a photo of a five-year-old girl in a sundress because her shoulders could be seen in the picture and, they said, it might be rejected in Muslim countries.

Everything is going to offend someone. Vegetarians, for example, must get quite repulsed when their neighbours have a cook-out. But the authorities don't suggest a ban on barbecues. The NHS doesn't send out circulars suggesting carnivores reach for the hummus in solidarity with their veggie colleagues. Although vegetarians may hold their views sincerely, and be able to support them with rational argument, since their beliefs are not religious, they get no special treatment. It's spirituality that gets the authorities sweating. Even then, not all religions are treated equally.

Jews have lived in this country for hundreds of years without anyone suggesting we ban piggy-in-the-middle from the playground. We don't vilify beef farmers for offending Hindus. One of the best-selling novelty toys last Christmas was a clockwork "nun-chucker".

In Scotland, the Wee Frees have been mocked without mercy for decades, just because they want to preserve Sunday for prayer in the islands where they live. The practice in Stornoway of tying up children's swings for the Sabbath ended long ago - but we never let them forget it. We ridicule Presbyterians with language we'd never apply to Muslims. Wee Free ministers are called ayatollahs for trying to stop a few ferry sailings. But we tolerate real ayatollahs who want to decapitate all Danish people because someone produced a cartoon they didn't like.

Let's hope fear is not at the root of this selective sensitivity. The response to those Danish cartoons, the threats to Salman Rushdie, the murder of the Dutch film-maker Theo van Gogh, suggest some Muslims will respond violently to any perceived offence. Fortunately they do not seem to live here. Scottish community relations are good. If we want them to stay that way, let's ignore individuals like Asif. The majority of his co-religionists can live perfectly well with pictures of piglets and puppies.


Children need risk to thrive as adults

The obsessive "safety-first" culture in schools will rob Britain of the next generation of entrepreneurs just when the country needs them most, a leading businessmen has claimed. Simon Woodroffe, founder of Yo! Sushi and a judge on the BBC show Dragons' Den, has told The Times that children must be exposed to more danger to help them to cope with the daily risk-taking required in the modern business world.

He said that he was in despair when he heard that schools were no longer taking pupils canoeing or camping in case they injured themselves. "My greatest fear is our children will grow up expecting to be looked after their whole lives, and expect corporate reasonableness for their entire working life. There would be no way we could compete with India and China with that attitude. Businesses there are doing everything they can to succeed," he said. "We need to encourage children to push themselves, to go beyond their limits, in order to build a nation of bold and confident people."

Mr Woodroffe, 56, is patron of the Go4It awards for schools, run by the Heads, Teachers and Industry (HTI) enterprise, to encourage sensible risktaking and rivalry among pupils. The awards were launched last year by Lord Jones of Birmingham, Minister of State for Trade and Development and a former Director-General of the CBI, in response to concerns of employers over the "cotton-wool kids" culture. HTI is the leading agency that links education with business and is a key adviser to the Government.

Lord Jones and other HTI leaders were horrified at last year's Go4It awards to discover that one of the winning schools was not allowed to attend because the locals authority deemed the journey to London too risky for the pupils. There is increasing concern that health and safety is stifling schools, some of which have banned traditional playground games such as conkers, snowball fights and cartwheeling, or prohibited pupils from doing the backstroke in swimming lessons.

Mr Woodroffe said: "We need to expose ourselves to danger to build the muscles of self-protection. If you don't learn to protect yourself when you are young, you may end up in even more danger later on." It was worrying that while people of his generation thought that health and safety was getting out of control, young people thought it was natural to ban adventurous activities because they might be dangerous, he said.

Mr Woodroffe left school at 16 with two O levels and spent 30 years in the entertainment business. He helped to stage Live Aid in 1985 and went into television before setting up Yo! Sushi in 1997. A new venture to produce extreme sport videos in the 1990s was a flop. He said, however, that he had not been afraid to fail and neither should children.

The Go4It awards will be presented tonight to schools which have developed a positive approach to risk. One winner is Langdale, a primary school in Cumbria, where pupils have just swum across Windermere and take geography lessons up mountains.

Meanwhile, the Children's Society is conducting a two-year inquiry about the pressures and restrictions on young people. It found that the average distance a nine-year-old girl is allowed to roam has been reduced from 840 metres in 1970 to 280 in 1997. The limit today appears to be the bottom of the garden, the charity said. Sue Palmer, an education expert and author of Toxic Childhood, argues that play has changed radically since the 1970s with outdoor activities replaced by screen time indoors. "What's happened is a sort of sedentary, screen-based existence has crept up on children. They used to be free-range and now they're practically battery children, living indoors, experiencing through the medium of a screen," she said.


Our leaders are in carbon-cloud cuckoo land

By Christopher Booker, commenting from Britain

For a perfect example of what is meant by "gesture politics" - an empty pledge given solely for effect, which the politician has no hope of honouring - one could not do better than this week's commitment by the G8 leaders on how they want us to fight climate change. Sitting on their cloud-wreathed Japanese mountain top, they solemnly agreed that, to halt global warming, their countries would aim by 2050 to halve their emissions of carbon dioxide.

A tiny indication of the fact that they didn't really have a clue what they were talking about was a slip by Japan's prime minister, Yasuo Fukuda, when he had to be corrected for announcing that the CO2 cut would be measured from "1990 levels". Even when he amended this to "present-day levels", he was merely spouting empty words into the oriental air.

Three things make this aspiration by the leaders of the world's "eight richest countries" not just vainglorious grandstanding, but positively dangerous. The first is that, as well as having no idea how they could achieve such an absurdly ambitious target, they may inflict immeasurable damage on their economies just by trying to do so.

One after another, it is becoming clear that all the costly measures so far proposed to cut carbon emissions are pie-in-the-sky. The drive for "renewable" sources of energy, such as building thousands of wind turbines, is turning out to be little more than self-deception (the combined output of all the 2,000 wind turbines so far built in Britain is less than that of a single, medium-sized, gas-fired power station).

Even the environmentalists have realised that biofuels are a farce, needing more CO2 to produce than they save. The EU's much-vaunted "emissions trading scheme", so far costing us all an estimated $80 billion, has not resulted in any reductions of CO2 emissions whatever.

If the G8's leaders genuinely wanted to cut carbon emissions by 50 per cent over the next 40 years, this would mean taking steps they haven't even begun to contemplate. It would require such a drastic cut in our energy use and standard of living that their peoples would have risen up in mass revolt long before the target was reached. And nothing better shows up the unreality of all this - as President Bush tried to point out in the summit's only flash of honesty - than the fact that China (not represented at the G8, although it now has the world's fourth largest economy) is already putting out more CO2 than anyone else. As it builds two new coal-fired power stations a week, China has no more intention than India of joining the Western economic suicide club.

The second reason why this infatuation with cutting carbon emissions is beginning to look extraordinarily reckless is that the whole scientific theory on which it is based now appears distinctly questionable. The orthodox global-warming thesis, accepted by pretty well every politician in the Western world, but not by a growing number of scientists, is that, as CO2 levels in the atmosphere continue to rise, so too should global temperatures. Unless we can drastically reduce those CO2 levels, the world is thus threatened with catastrophe.

In the past year or two, however, evidence has been piling up to suggest that there may be a fundamental flaw in this theory. Even though atmospheric CO2 has continued to rise to levels not seen since the distant geological past, temperatures have not been following suit. After 2000 the global temperature curve flattened out at a level significantly lower than the freak year 1998, and in recent months temperatures have dropped to levels not seen since the early 1980s.

Despite the best efforts of the global-warming lobby to keep the scare going, the northern hemisphere enjoyed its coldest winter for decades, and this summer has shown the curve sinking even lower. Even the warmists are having to find excuses for the fact that their theory doesn't exactly seem to be holding up, conceding that the next 10 years may see a period of global cooling, before the "underlying warming trend" returns worse than ever.

Other scientists point out that, rather than look to CO2 for an explanation of global temperatures, a much more convincing link can be seen in the activity of the sun, with current sunspot levels having dramatically fallen to levels associated with historic periods of global cooling recorded in the past.

Yet just when such huge question marks are being raised over the "CO2 equals warming" theory, our politicians have swallowed it whole, as an act of blind faith - using it to justify such massive costs to our economy that our whole way of life seems destined to change significantly for the worse.

The third respect in which all this is becoming seriously dangerous applies specifically to us here in Britain. While Gordon Brown prattles about wind turbines, and plays silly games for the cameras with electric cars, Britain within a few years is facing the near certainty of a massive shortfall in our electricity supplies. By 2015, thanks to the obsolescence of our nuclear power plants and the forced closure of nine of our major coal and oil-fired power stations under EU anti-pollution rules, we are due to lose 40 per cent of our current generating capacity - and Mr Brown hasn't the slightest practical idea of how to fill the gap.

Forget the nonsense about a 50 per cent cut in carbon emissions by 2050. Our Government has already committed Britain to go even further, by imposing a statutory cut of 60 per cent through its Climate Change Bill. But long before that, unless those who rule us come down out of cloud cuckoo land very fast, our lights will go out, our computers will shut down, our economy will judder to a halt and we shall face a national catastrophe. We may well be meeting that 60 per cent target sooner than we think - but not for reasons that reflect well on our politicians, of any party.


Risks of IVF twins exaggerated

Infertile couples who want more than one child should be encouraged to try for IVF twins in spite of the medical consensus that multiple pregnancies should be avoided, a senior American doctor said. The health risks of conceiving twins by IVF have been exaggerated by the medical profession, and a British initiative to cut the number of such pregnancies is "categorically wrong", according to Norbert Gleicher, of the Centre for Human Reproduction in New York.

He told the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology conference in Barcelona that for many women who need IVF to conceive, the birth of twins is a "favourable and ethical" result. Such pregnancies provide complete families at a stroke, and may often be safer than having two singleton IVF pregnancies, he said. Moves to persuade more women to use one embryo at a time during fertility treatment, as recommended by a UK national strategy launched last week, are thus misguided.

Professor Gleicher's comments were fiercely disputed by other senior doctors, who said that his opinions were based on a flawed analysis of the risks of multiple pregnancies to both babies and mothers. Professor Peter Braude, of King's College, London, said that IVF twin pregnancies are well-established to be more hazardous than singleton conceptions, with dangers that include prematurity, stillbirth, low birth weight, cerebral palsy, pre-eclampsia, haemorrhage and maternal death. "Couples should be extra cautious about interpreting this advice because it flies in the face of all other published data about the risks of multiple births," he said.

The conference executive, which is encouraging IVF clinics across Europe to move to single embryo transfer to guard against multiple births, said in a statement: "There are significant risks to multiple pregnancies, and we should not be generating them deliberately. IVF babies also deserve the best start in life."

A Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) expert panel, chaired by Professor Braude, found in 2006 that twins have five times the usual risk of death in the first year of life and six times the risk of cerebral palsy. More than half are born prematurely, and 40 to 60 per cent require intensive care. Each twin costs the NHS 16 times as much as a singleton birth in the first year of life, and it is estimated that 126 deaths would have been avoided had all IVF twins born in Britain in 2003 been singleton births.

Multiple pregnancies are also dangerous for mothers. A quarter are complicated by problems such as high blood pressure, and the death rate is doubled for women expecting twins.

These dangers have led the HFEA and the British Fertility Society to launch a national strategy to reduce Britain's IVF twin rate from 24 per cent to 10 per cent by 2012. This is likely to require single embryo transfer in about 50 per cent of IVF cycles, compared to about 10 per cent at present.

Professor Gleicher, however, claimed that some of these risks had been over-estimated, because they have been calculated by comparing twin births with just one singleton pregnancy, not two. "When you ask infertile patients having treatment, a very large majority want more than one child," he said. "The question is how you get two children, not one. When you add the risks of two singleton pregnancies together, many risks of twins disappear.

"For infertile patients, desirous of more than one child, twin deliveries represent a favourable, cost-effective and ethical treatment outcome, which in contrast to medical consensus, should be encouraged.

"Because the alleged excessive risks and costs of twin deliveries have been the primary motivation behind the recently increasingly popular concept of single embryo transfer, the clinical, ethical and economic validity of single embryo transfer should be seriously questioned."

He added that much of the medical literature is based on comparisons between naturally conceived singletons and twins. This may be misleading because IVF twins have a lower risk than spontaneous twins of dying at or soon after birth.

In a paper published in the journal Fertility and Sterility, Professor Gleicher has suggested that when these factors are taken into account, IVF twin pregnancies are less risky than two singleton conceptions for complications including stillbirth, neonatal death and major birth defects.

Professor Braude and the conference doctors pointed out that even Professor Gleicher's adjusted figures show substantially raised risks of maternal death, low birth weight and pre-eclampsia, a life-threatening blood pressure disorder.

They added that for many risks, it is statistically misleading to compare twin pregnancies with two singleton pregnancies. Professor Mark Hamilton, the chairman of the British Fertility Society, said: "It is misleading, as he has done, to combine the risks of two single live births which are two independent events, each with a lower risk than that of a twin pregnancy. "With singleton pregnancies, the chance of having a stillborn baby, or one that dies soon after, is about five per 1,000. In a twin pregnancy it's four to five times that. If your first singleton pregnancy was uncomplicated, your chance of a problem the second time round is even lower, probably less than one in a thousand. Multiple pregnancies unquestionably expose mothers and babies to increased hazards."

Professor Gleicher's study has also ignored the long-term health risks of the low birth weights suffered by twins, and the psychological impact of multiple births on parents.

A separate study presented at the conference, from Helsinki University Central Hospital in Finland, has found that the mothers and fathers of twins suffer significantly more mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety and sleep disorders, than the parents of singletons.


Britain: Food fanaticism hits school meals

School meals will soar in price or vanish without a significant injection of government funds, parents are to be told today. Sandra Russell, chairwoman of the Local Authority Caterers Association, told The Times that school meal provision was not sustainable because of the credit crunch, rising food prices and declining numbers of children eating school meals.

Hundreds of millions of pounds is said to be needed from the Government to prop up the system, or meals could rise by 30p a day – costing more than o100 extra each year for a family with two children. Parents already pay between o1.50 and o2 for each meal, but some catering companies are running at a deficit.

New nutrition regulations that come into force this year will make the situation even more untenable, Ms Russell said. Kitchen staff will have to provide details of the calories, fat and nutrients in each dish, restricting the choice that catering firms can offer and putting off even more children. Numbers dropped after Jamie Oliver, the television chef, campaigned in 2005 to improve the standards of school lunches.

Many schools now serve only healthy meals and almost half a million fewer pupils ate school lunches last year than two years earlier. The latest take-up of school meals will be announced this week at the association's annual conference.

Ms Russell will challenge schools and the Government at the event, saying that head teachers need to put nutrition at the heart of the curriculum, and that ministers from different departments should work together to tackle childhood obesity.

Detailed nutrition targets must be implemented at secondary schools from September, such as meals not containing more than 11 per cent fat or less than 40 per cent of the recommended daily intake of vitamin C.

Ms Russell said: "Our regulations are the most stringent in Europe. I do have concerns about how secondary school catering is going to stay sustainable when the nutrition standards are introduced. Some children don't recognise the food served in schools because they haven't eaten it at home. We have generations of young mums who can't actually cook."

Ms Russell said that catering firms would have to buy nutritional analysis software to meet the new standards. If schools experience low take-up of school meals, then they will lose funding, Ms Russell said. She added: "There is the impact of rising food prices and distribution charges. I think it will be a case of putting school meal prices up or asking for additional government funding."

Kevin Brennan, the Education Minister, said that children should have to stay on school premises at lunchtime in order to prevent them eating junk food. The restriction could help to tackle obesity and prevent tensions with those who live near by, he said. The proposal was condemned by head teachers as unworkable.


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