Monday, October 27, 2008

British immigration boss too outspoken

Phil Woolas, the immigration minister, was pulled from last night's BBC Question Time on the instruction of the home secretary after a series of controversial public performances in the past week. Jacqui Smith said Woolas should delay his appearance for a week and Labour tried to replace him with the former Home Office minister Tony McNulty. Smith thought Woolas had made enough controversial remarks, with some Home Office officials briefing he was gaffe prone. The BBC rejected the party's suggestion and asked Lord Hattersley, the former deputy leader of the party, to appear.

Being pulled has been difficult for Woolas, who feels he is being briefed against by Home Office officials angry at what they regard as his unwise remarks on immigration and criticism of previous Home Office practice. However, he is being allowed to appear on the World at One today and he is gathering support from Labour MPs who believe he is taking the right approach.

Woolas was appointed in the reshuffle by Gordon Brown to speak about immigration in ways in which the public could relate. But it has not been clear whether his appointment is bringing a change in policy or merely in rhetoric from his predecessor, Liam Byrne.

There are indications that Smith is considering tightening immigration policy. She told MPs this week: "Our proposals on earned citizenship mean that migrants understand very clearly that permission to come here to work or study does not give them the right to settle here indefinitely".

Labour MP Frank Field, in a joint paper with Tory MP Nicholas Soames, has proposed those granted permission to work in Britain through the new points system would be allowed to stay for four years and thereafter be expected to leave, or undertake a test to see if their skills are needed.

Field, in a letter sent to MPs reporting on his meeting with Smith last week, claims: "The home secretary questioned whether we were being robust enough in our criteria for allowing people to come here to work for up to four years."


British migrant row: Minister hit by pie

The usual Leftist love of coercion

Immigration minister Phil Woolas has become the victim of a pie-throwing protester, angry at his call to limit UK immigration. A member of the No Borders group threw a cream pie into the minister's face while he was speaking at a debate at Manchester University. A spokeswoman for the group said Mr Woolas had been "spouting right-wing anti-immigration policies". A Home Office spokeswoman said the minister declined to comment.

The No Borders group, which campaigns against immigration controls, were angered by Mr Woolas' recent remarks, in which he said the government would not allow the UK's population to rise as high as 70 million.

The Oldham East and Saddleworth MP denied that he wanted a "numerical cap" on immigration. Home Secretary Jacqui Smith later said Mr Woolas had not been "gagged" after her department pulled him from BBC One's Question Time.

Mr Woolas was targeted when he attended an environmental debate held at Manchester University student union on Friday afternoon. As he arrived the minister was confronted with a mock "border control" and was asked for his passport. Then, shortly after he began to speak, a woman rose from the audience and threw a pie, believed to be made of Bourbon Creams biscuits and vegan cream, into his face at close range.

A spokeswoman for No Borders said: "The woman ran away. Mr Woolas was shocked and there was a bit of an awkward silence as he left the room to clean himself up. "We threw the pie because we didn't want to engage in debate [No surprise there] and legitimise what he was saying. "What he was spouting were right wing anti-immigration policies. The danger is that people like him are making such views mainstream."

Mr Woolas was unharmed and later rejoined the debate. It is not known whether he was accompanied by any security at the time of the incident.


Must they know about sex at age five?

One thing stumps me about the news that the Government is to provide compulsory "sex and relationships" lessons for children from the age of five: how much can there really be to say?

On the subject of relationships, obviously, one could go on forever, recommending lengthy homework on everything from Jane Austen to Leonard Cohen lyrics. On sex, I would have thought there was rather less to discuss: one could surely exhaust the topics of contraception, pregnancy, abortion and sexually transmitted diseases in a matter of weeks at the age of 11, perhaps with a brief refresher course at 13. After that, in what precise style young people proceed with sex in later life is surely a matter for them: there must be some areas to which even the omnipresent hand of the nanny state does not reach.

The news that there will now be a "naming of parts" session for five-year-olds, however - in which they learn the correct words for genitals and the differences between the sexes - gives me the creeps. By the age of five, many children have their own names for their private parts, often of a friendly, silly variety that will do them perfectly well until they are older. Is there really any point in school insisting on teaching them otherwise?

If a friend or relative suddenly insisted on lecturing your five-year-old about the official name for their genitals, apropos of nothing, I imagine they would be asked to shut up pretty sharpish. I am at something of a loss as to why this interference should be thought preferable coming from a primary teacher. And yet a sex education comic - Let's Grow With Nisha and Joe - is already being promoted to primary schools. We learned to read with Dick and Dora: I shudder to think what they would do with that pair today.

The great irony in the Government setting itself up as the supreme educator on sexual and emotional matters is that, when it is given the task of actually looking after confused and vulnerable children all by itself, it is the worst parent imaginable. Girls who have grown up in care are sexually active earlier than other teenagers, and are 2.5 times more likely to become pregnant. A quarter of girls leaving care are already mothers or pregnant.

These girls are subjected to the same sex education at school as everyone else: I would be extremely surprised if any of them did not know in theory how to avoid having a baby. The real point, surely, is that they do not greatly want to avoid it. The emotional isolation they experience during their period in the unfeeling British care system means that they gravitate towards men as a source of affection and attention. The prospect of motherhood then offers them both an acknowledged social status and perhaps a reason for continued financial support from the state. Their early pregnancy is entirely logical, for any state that cares to read its own shortcomings written in the logic.

This, to a lesser degree, holds true for very many teenage girls who "accidentally" find themselves pregnant. The phenomenon is not helped by the fact that at the moment there is a wealth of information on what it means to have sex and very little on what it means to be in sole charge of a small baby that cries round the clock.

I believe in the good sense of basic sex education at school for older children, even if my own was pretty much confined to a terrifying film of a woman giving birth, and a hilarious, crackling 1960s film about male puberty called From Boy to Man. (We never got to see From Girl to Woman, despite being primed for yet more helpless laughter: the projector broke.)

There is a danger, however, that any philosophy that mainly concentrates on the somewhat deceptive notion of "safe sex" and the judicious use of contraception is in fact misleading. If a teenager doesn't think that he or she is ready for the life-changing complications that might arise from sex - and few are - then the best advice is not to do it at all. Otherwise, they should be warned that contraception is very far from infallible, and they would be advised to double up on their methods.

I yearn for the day when "sex and relationships" lessons actually do something to make teenage behaviour wiser, and when lessons include: "Just because he sleeps with you doesn't mean he loves you" and "New mum Mary can't go out for two years. It's 3am and the baby's screaming with colic." Sadly, the glum news that Jim Knight, the Schools Minister, has decided instead to start badgering the nation's five-year-olds into naming their private parts doesn't lead me to think that will happen any time soon.

More here

NHS dream of equality trumped by reality

Up to 10,000 patients will pay to top up their care when Alan Johnson, the health secretary, lifts the ban next month on National Health Service patients buying drugs that the state does not fund. Johnson’s U-turn, reported in last week’s Sunday Times, will end the policy of withdrawing NHS care from cancer patients who pay privately for life-prolonging drugs. It follows a campaign by the paper to end the practice. Until now the government has resisted pleas for top-ups to be allowed by claiming that the system will create a two-tier NHS.

The controversy is also expected to force Johnson to ask the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice), the government’s drug rationing body, to review the way it calculates whether life-prolonging cancer drugs should be funded by the taxpayer. Thousands of NHS patients are denied drugs that could prolong their lives because Nice has ruled that they are not good value for money.

In August Nice ruled that four life-prolonging kidney cancer drugs should not be funded on the NHS because, although they could halt the spread of the cancer for six months, this would be at a cost of up to $70,000 a year. Nice will now be asked to take greater account of how precious this extra time is for terminally ill patients.

At the moment, patients who have chosen to use their savings to pay for drugs to give them extra months of life with their families have their NHS care withdrawn. Johnson will argue that by ordering Nice to make more of these drugs available on the NHS, it will reduce the number of patients who need to pay to top up their care.

Healthcare at Home, a private company, says it is already selling cancer drugs to 1,000 patients from about 30 NHS trusts that have broken ranks and allowed patients to buy additional drugs while receiving NHS care. A company spokesman said that once the ban was lifted and more than 170 hospital trusts in England allowed top-ups, up to 10,000 patients could decide to supplement their NHS care with additional drugs.

Johnson’s change of policy follows an inquiry launched by the government in June after The Sunday Times revealed the tragedy of Linda O'Boyle, 64, a grandmother from Billericay, Essex, who died in March after her NHS care was withdrawn because she had paid privately for cetuximab, the bowel cancer treatment. At least three other cancer patients have died after their NHS care was withdrawn because they had paid for drugs.


Man sacked from British counselling service because he is a Christian who refused to give sex advice to homosexuals

A relationship counsellor claims he was sacked because he admitted that his Christian beliefs could prevent him giving sex therapy to gay couples. Gary McFarlane, a father of two who has worked for the national counselling service Relate since 2003, says that it failed to accommodate his faith or allow him to try to overcome his reservations. Now Mr McFarlane, 47, is taking his case to an employment tribunal, alleging unfair dismissal on the grounds of religious discrimination.

The controversy follows the case in July of Lillian Ladele, the Christian registrar who successfully challenged Islington Council over her refusal to conduct civil partnership ceremonies for gay couples.

Mr McFarlane, a solicitor, said he was 'sad and disappointed' with the 'bigotry' he had experienced at the Bristol branch of Relate from 'a group of people with their own agenda'. 'If I was a Muslim this would not happen,' he said. 'They would find a way to make the system work. But Christians seem to have fewer and fewer rights. Relate needs to be forced to work through stuff like this.'

Mr McFarlane, who regularly attends both Church of England and Pentecostal services in Bristol, joined Relate Avon five years ago. As a solicitor, he has specialised in resolving legal disputes through mediation, and even sits on a committee advising the Law Society. He is also a part-time tutor on relationships at Trinity Theological College in Bristol, whose Church of England principal, Canon George Kovoor, is a Chaplain to the Queen.

While training as a counsellor he had qualms about dealing with gay couples but overcame them during discussions with his supervisor. He has since helped a lesbian partnership. But his real problems arose last year after he started to train as a psychosexual therapist, treating people's intimate sexual problems. He said: 'In counselling, you are drawing the couple out, going on a journey with them, enabling them to think in more than black and white. You are not telling anyone what to do or endorsing what they do. 'But in sex therapy you are diagnosing their problems and setting them a treatment plan, not unlike a doctor.'

He said that while he believed in 'each to their own', he felt uncomfortable doing anything that would directly encourage gay sex. He had not expected to confront these issues until facing the prospect of providing therapy for a gay couple, when he planned to discuss them in confidence with his supervisor. He assumed that Relate Avon would take him off the case. He said that many counsellors had difficulties that had to be worked around. Some had been abused as children and found they could not conduct sessions with abusers, and Relate Avon would accommodate them.

But fellow counsellors complained about Mr McFarlane's views, alleging he was homophobic, and he was suspended last December by his manager. After three weeks, he was reinstated and had to promise to abide by Relate's equal opportunities policy, with the proviso, he claims, that he could raise issues in the future.

Following further complaints, however, he was told that he would face a disciplinary hearing because managers at Relate Avon no longer believed he intended to uphold the policy. He was dismissed and his appeal was rejected.

'There was a group who didn't want me there and they got their teeth in,' he said. 'I was prepared to explore my reservations but they wanted unconditional assurances that they would never become an issue for me. 'Why did they have to slam the door like that? This could force other Christians out of counselling. Some have already reacted with consternation, saying if it could happen to someone of my experience and skills, it could happen to them.'

A spokeswoman for Relate said: 'Relate cannot comment until the employment tribunal has taken place.' The organisation, originally called the National Marriage Guidance Council, was founded in 1938. By 1998 it was counselling couples in a much wider range of relationships and changed its name to Relate. It now operates from nearly 600 locations nationwide.


Liberty vs liberty

British campaign group Liberty seems more interested in proposing an alternative authoritarianism than defending freedom

This week, the UK government decided to shelve its plans to increase the period that terror suspects can be held without charge from 28 days to 42 days, after its proposal was voted down in the House of Lords. Britain's leading civil liberties group, Liberty, immediately declared the decision a `victory' for its campaign to prevent the increase. Yet the law that Liberty should really be worried about is not the Counter-Terrorism Bill but the Trades Descriptions Act - because Liberty, along with many others, doesn't seem very interested in defending liberty at all.

The government's decision to shelve the extension was simply a pragmatic one. Its Bill calling for an extension to 42 days' detention without charge only scraped through the House of Commons in June this year thanks to the support of nine Democratic Unionist MPs: bigots from Northern Ireland that no self-respecting government should cuddle up to. New Labour's whips in the House of Commons believed that if the measure went to a vote in the House again, it could well be defeated. Furthermore, even if the Bill did get through the Commons, the unelected House of Lords could continue to block it for up to a year before the Parliament Act could be used to force the law through; this would have delayed all the other measures in the Bill. The government scrapped the 42-days proposal in order to avoid embarrassment in the Commons and a potential delay by the Lords.

However, parliamentary calculation was not the only reason for a change of mind. There was also opposition to aspects of the Bill from those who should have been its keenest supporters: the police. In an article in The Times (London) a week before the Lords' vote, Andy Hayman - until recently Britain's most senior anti-terrorism officer - declared his support for the principle of 42 days' detention while denouncing the proposed mechanism by which it would be put into effect: `[T]he government's current proposals are not fit for purpose: they are bureaucratic, convoluted and unworkable. The draftsman's pen has introduced so many hoops to be jumped through that a police case for detaining a terror suspect will become part of the political game.'

Others argue that the government erased 42 days from its Bill for strictly party political reasons. In June, with Prime Minister Gordon Brown flailing about in a sea of unpopularity and desperate to appear like he had some purpose, he was keen to push through a measure that looked tough on terrorism. But the current economic crisis has given him a new lease of life. Now he is praised in the press not only for saving the British banking system (allegedly) but for providing a framework through which the US authorities and European governments might intervene in the financial arena, too. The 42-day proposal, which must once have seemed like a potential vote-winner, is now a messy and divisive idea at a time when Brown is milking the financial crisis. With all eyes focused on the economy, it was the perfect moment to drop the 42-days idea.

Liberty believes the decision to drop the proposal was a stunning vindication of its campaigning. Never mind that everyone from senior police officers to the prime minister himself was getting cold feet about the whole thing. After the Lords vote, the Liberty website declared: `Last night saw a resounding victory for Liberty's long running "Charge or Release" campaign. Common sense and common decency prevailed as the government dropped plans to detain terror suspects for 42 days without charge, following an overwhelming defeat in the House of Lords. We have consistently urged the government to drop these damaging proposals and have condemned the measures as wrong in principle, unnecessary and counter-productive.'

This is a strange kind of `victory', rather like a football manager declaring that being beaten four-nil was cause for celebration because at least it wasn't six-nil. Both are crushing defeats. The same applies to the current rules on terrorism offences. The power to lock someone up and question him repeatedly without charge for a disturbing 28 days - the victorious settlement in this civil liberty war - has no equivalent in any other democracy, as Liberty itself has pointed out frequently. Indeed, terrorism offences aside, the legal maximum for detention without charge in England is 96 hours - even in murder cases.

Worse, Liberty has argued that 28 days should be maintained and that other important principles of legal protection for suspects should be thrown out in lieu of introducing the 42-day extension. Liberty argues that the government should `remove the bar on intercept (phone tap) evidence in criminal trials', `review the way in which people that have already been charged can be re-interviewed and recharged as further evidence is uncovered' (opening up the possibility of oppressive post-charge questioning), and `bring in existing powers under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) which enable a civil court to require an individual to hand over an encryption key (which unlocks data on seized computers)'.

These legal rules that Liberty wishes to water down or override provide protection for individuals when the overwhelming power of the state is brought to bear upon them. Yet Liberty seems willing to trade them in for the administrative convenience of the police when investigating terrorist offences. As the Labour peer Martin O'Neill pointed out in the New Statesman earlier this year, in relation to the 42-day proposal, `certain liberties - like the freedom from detention without charge - are simply too fundamental to be traded-off against gains in our personal security. This is because personal security may itself only be truly worthwhile as long as these liberties are protected. It may do us no good to be kept safe from harm if it is at the cost of living in a country that is no longer a civilised liberal democracy.' The same applies to these other pillars of civil liberty, too.

Furthermore, Liberty has remained silent - at best - on a range of recent restrictions on our freedom, from the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act, which requires the state vetting of 11million people who work with children and old people, through to the bans on smoking and drinking in public. Shami Chakrabarti, the head of Liberty, has even threatened to use the libel laws - England's famously anti-free speech rules - to stop malicious statements being made about her. That's hardly the instinct of someone truly interested in freedom.

Instead of declaring victory in cases where draconian government powers are reinforced, what is needed is a more fundamental defence of individual liberty in Britain, something that spiked has put forward in our `Slash 42 days to 24 hours' campaign (see The fight for individual liberty starts here, by Brendan O'Neill). We need to defend existing protections and reinstate important principles like the right to silence - but we also need to go beyond the law to re-establish the idea of the active political citizen in contemporary society. Until the authorities feel the breath of active opposition on the backs of their necks, we will be stuck with the alternative authoritarianism of legalistic wonks like Liberty.


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