Veteran Tory Lord Tebbit provoked anger among Muslims yesterday by comparing Islamic sharia courts to gangsters. He likened the tribunals to the 'system of arbitration of disputes that was run by the Kray brothers'. Lord Tebbit told the Lords: 'Are you not aware that there is extreme pressure put upon vulnerable women to go through a form of arbitration that results in them being virtually precluded from access to British law?'
The intervention from Lord Tebbit, the former Tory chairman and cabinet minister whose leading role in the Thatcher years has made him a revered figure for many in the party, reignited the row over Islamic courts and their role in the British justice system. Muslim critics called his remarks 'baseless and ignorant'.
Last autumn, ministers confirmed that sharia tribunals may deal with family and divorce disputes among Muslims, and that sharia decisions need only the briefest scrutiny in a law court to win full legal effect. Five sharia courts currently operate mediation systems approved under the 1996 Arbitration Act. Their decisions on divorce, money and children can be approved by a family court if they are submitted to a judge for approval.
Orthodox Jewish religious tribunals settle similar disputes and have a similar legal status.
Lord Tebbit - who drew controversy in the 1990s after he recommended a 'cricket test' to assess the loyalty to Britain of immigrants - spoke after ministers confirmed the role of sharia courts. Warning that women could be shut out from the protection of the law, he asked Justice Minister Lord Bach: 'That is a difficult matter, I know, but how do you think we can help those who are put in that position?'
His comparison with the intimidation and violence used by the Krays to run their gangland empire brought an angry response. Inayat Bunglawala, of the Muslim Council of Britain, said: 'We can only wonder whether Lord Tebbit has ever set foot in a sharia council to see what they actually do before making such a baseless and ignorant comparison with the workings of the Kray brothers. 'Both Muslim sharia councils and Orthodox Jewish Beth Din courts exist to try and help resolve civil disputes amongst individuals through a voluntary process of arbitration. They are entirely legal and have to operate firmly within the law.'
But Lord Tebbit's scepticism over sharia law was backed by UKIP peer Lord Pearson of Rannoch, who called on the Government for 'a clear assurance that sharia law will never be allowed to take precedence over British law.'
Lord Bach admitted a problem 'undoubtedly exists' over the treatment of women in sharia courts. But he added: 'The fact is that any decision made by anybody that is outside English law cannot stand against English law. If consent is sought, for example, for some issue around children or to do with family assets, then the English courts decide. 'Other councils - not courts - can, if the parties want to make that agreement, make that agreement and that applies across the board. But always behind that is the fact that those agreements can't be enforced except by an English court.'
Last year, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, said the full establishment of sharia law 'seems unavoidable'. In July 2008, the then Lord Chief Justice Lord Phillips said the principles of sharia law could be the basis for resolving family and business disputes.
'Stifling' British libel laws attacked by celebrities and scientists after writer is sued by chiropractors for saying unproven treatment is 'bogus'
Scientists and celebrities joined yesterday in an attack on Britain's libel laws. They called for free speech in science after a judge ruled against a writer who accused chiropractors of using 'bogus treatments'. The resulting outcry among leading scientists has drawn support from showbusiness stars Stephen Fry, Ricky Gervais and Harry Hill and Left-wing figureheads such as lawyer Baroness Kennedy and columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown.
The ruling against Dr Simon Singh came from controversial judge Mr Justice Eady, already the focus of strong criticism over his interpretations of human rights and libel laws.
Dr Singh wrote in the Guardian last year that the British Chiropractic Association was 'the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments'. The association sued for libel, demanding an apology and a retraction. In a preliminary ruling last month Mr Justice Eady said the use of the word 'bogus' meant Mr Singh had accused the association of dishonesty and supporting treatment it knew would not work.
The campaign to help Dr Singh in an appeal has the support of many eminent scientific names, including biologist Richard Dawkins, astronomer Jocelyn Bell, geneticist Steve Jones, Royal Society president Lord Rees and former Government chief scientist Sir David King. Professor Dawkins said: 'The English libel laws are ridiculed as an international charter for litigious mountebanks, and the effects are especially pernicious where science is concerned.'
Sir David King questioned Mr Justice Eady's opinion over the word bogus. He said: 'It is ridiculous that a legal and outmoded definition of a word has been used to hinder and discourage scientific debate.' Stephen Fry said: 'When a powerful organisation tries to silence a man of Simon Singh's reputation, anyone who believes in science, fairness and the truth should rise in indignation.'
Dr Singh's article attacked chiropractors for claiming that they could treat complaints and conditions unconnected to back problems. The British Chiropractic Association says its techniques 'improve the efficiency of the nervous system and release the body's natural healing ability'. It said in a statement that Dr Singh 'could have retracted the remarks and apologised and the debate would have continued away from the legal world. He chose not to do so. 'To stifle scientific debate would clearly be wrong. However, with rights comes responsibility, and scientists must realise they cannot simply publish with impunity what they know to be untrue and libellous.'
Mr Justice Eady has been accused of promoting 'libel tourism' after finding for a Saudi banker against an American author whose book had not even been published in Britain.
The decision provoked deep criticism in the U.S. Several states have responded to Britain's strengthened libel laws by stopping their courts enforcing foreign libel judgments.
Accent still matters in Britain
Teenager 'forced out of job at upmarket shirt shop because her Coronation Street accent was too common'
A teenager claims she was forced to quit her job at a top store after bosses said her regional accent was not posh enough. Danielle Snelgrove, from Salford, Manchester, was told to listen to staff at a nearby John Lewis for tips and not to copy the language heard at a McDonald's outlet. The 18-year-old feared she was about to be sent on elocution courses by management at men's outfitters T M Lewin before she decided to resign. Miss Snelgrove said: 'I'm proud of where I come from and here they were telling me to bury my roots.
'It wasn't that they were deliberately unkind, it was just that I had a month of being told my accent didn't fit. 'I'd had enough when the manager and supervisor told me I needed to go to John Lewis to see how assistants speak to customers and then McDonald's to see how not to do it.' She broke down in tears and immediately called her mother, Sue, 42, who drove to the Trafford Centre shopping mall in Manchester to pick her up.
Mrs Snelgrove said: 'She phoned in tears so I rushed down to collect her. She was almost hysterical and thoroughly demoralised. 'Of course, she has a local accent - she comes from the area. What did they expect and who do they think they are?'
Miss Snelgrove said she was pleased when she passed two interviews to get the job and said she had worked hard to beat her weekly sales targets.
The move has also infuriated staff at the nearby McDonald's restaurant in the Trafford Centre. Rachael Carrington, deputy manager, said: 'It is insulting. I started work at McDonald's in Macclesfield when I was 18 and waiting to go to university to study law. 'I stayed on, and am now 21, earning 21,000 pounds a year and with promotion that goes up to 24,000. This is the busiest McDonald's in the north west, it took 500,000 over Christmas and 3.7m last year.' She said: 'We have 125 members of staff who come from all over the North West. 'If they have difficulty with their English - and I'm not saying that is the case with this lady - we help them, rather than criticise.'
A spokesman for T M Lewin said an internal inquiry was underway but refused to discuss Miss Snelgrove's case in detail. He said: 'We are aware that an employee has made claims and this is currently under investigation. It is not appropriate, or within our policies, for us to comment on an individual case.
'However, we wish to confirm that employee welfare is of paramount importance to us. We recruit people from all backgrounds and actively embrace regional diversity, all of which is encapsulated in our equal opportunities and diversity policy. 'We also aim to provide the very best standards of customer service. We thus train our employees to understand what constitutes excellent service. At no time do we use other companies to demonstrate our service expectations.' He said: 'Moreover, we believe that good service usually comes from individuals, not companies, and that allowing the individual to shine is often what generates a good reputation for the company. 'We treat any concerns relating to employee welfare extremely seriously but would like to reiterate that we are committed to recruiting and training local people and providing the opportunities for all employees to reach their full potential.'
What pathetic wimps modern-day university students must be
All these memories have been prompted by this week's news that Cambridge is to abandon its 300-year-old tradition of informing students of their exam results by posting them on the Senate House notice board. Apparently, this is too 'stressful' and 'upsetting' for the students of 2009, who fear the 'humiliation' of learning their results at second-hand or standing next to fellow examinees who have done better.
Give me strength! What a generation of delicate flowers we seem to have bred! What useless, pathetic, good-for-nothing wimps!
My point in banging on about my late father is that he always was, and still is, an impossible act to follow. He'd stood out at Corpus for two reasons: one, he'd been totally blind from the age of nine, bearing his disability with a charm and total lack of self-pity which inspired everyone who met him; and, two, he was the most dazzlingly brilliant student of his age, who graduated with the only starred double-first in history awarded at Cambridge in his year. As my wife will testify, I have a hideously competitive nature. But how can you better the highest degree it's possible to achieve? You can't, of course - and in my case, reading my father's subject at my father's college and knowing I couldn't match him in a million years - this meant I didn't even try.
That's my shameful excuse, anyway, for squandering my time at Cambridge - and my generous grant from taxpayers (thank you all, belatedly, from the bottom of my heart) - spending my days in bed or lolling in a punt on the River Cam and my nights on the tiles. So it was, when the day dawned for the Finals results to go up at the Senate House. I was expecting a Third. But, oh, it was even worse than that. Reader, I was awarded a 2:2.
For those who weren't there, I should explain a silly Cambridge snobbery in my day, which held that a Third was more respectable than a lower second, since it didn't necessarily reflect on the examinee's intelligence. It could just mean that he or she had done no work at all. A 2:2, on the other hand, suggested at least a little work. To put it brutally, it meant a lower second-class mind.
So, yes, it wasn't the happiest moment of my life when my humiliation was displayed at the Senate House for all to see. But humiliation was the price I richly deserved for all the fun and idleness I'd enjoyed in those blissful years. Like everyone else who'd done badly, I took it on the chin.
Is today's generation incapable of doing the same? What with dumbed-down school exams and prizes for all on sports day, have we so completely banished the concept of failure from young people's lives that they just can't accept it when it stares them in the face from a public notice board? If so, we should worry very seriously about our country's future in this cutthroat, competitive world.
Indeed, the education establishment devotes far too much of its time and energy to worrying about the feelings of losers like me, when it ought to be bringing on the winners like my dad. Did the Cambridge authorities give any thought to them or their feelings when they decided to scrap the age-old ritual on results day?
I've often imagined the huge joy and satisfaction my father must have felt when he stood in the throng by the Senate House and learned that he'd picked up the most glittering degree Cambridge had to offer. As it happens, he once told me that in the course of his career, not a single one of his employers ever asked him what class of degree he'd been awarded - and he was far too modest to volunteer the information. So that moment in the early Forties, when word spread through the crowd that this young blind man had graduated summa cum laude was the first and last occasion when he could bask in the full glory of his academic achievement.
No such luck for me. In the early years of my career, the first question each of my editors asked me was how I'd done at Cambridge. I just had to blush and come clean. The shame of it! Oh, well, like my father, I got my just deserts.
The Cambridge authorities should take a leaf from the great Mr Jaggard's book. They should sing the praises of the gentlemen and scholars, as their predecessors have done for 300 years. And, they should stop being afraid to call a prat a prat!
British farmer branded racist for telling the truth about travellers
"Travellers" in Britain can mean either gypsies or Irish itinerants. Both live in trailers which are usually parked illegally in parkland etc.
"Having lived next to a community of travellers for 30 years, Bryan Lee thought he had valuable insight into plans to give them a permanent home. But when he objected to transforming a field into a new settlement, his input was ignored - and he was even branded a racist. Mr Lee, 65, was warned he could face legal action from the police and equality watchdogs if he dared to continue with his 'racist representations'.
Yesterday, the retired dairy farmer spoke of his outrage at being labelled a bigot by officials at Mid Devon District Council. Their response came after he wrote in March to disagree with plans to turn a field half a mile from his home in Silverton, Devon, into two pitches for travellers.
The father of two outlined the problems he had faced with another travellers' site and said the application was 'inappropriate for the area'. He wrote: 'The number of families at any one time on the permanent site was an ongoing problem for the local authority, as was the nature of business carried out on the site. 'This included vehicle wrecking and various small-scale livestock ventures.' He continued: 'Horses were turned into my fields regularly. The police were regular visitors, usually to trace stolen property but also to break up fights with traveller families from other sites.'
When staff eventually responded, Mid Devon District Council said it would take 'no account' of his letter and warned he may be investigated under race laws. Officials wrote: 'It is policy on planning and building proposals to take no account of representations of a racist nature. 'If the council receives any more racist representations from you, this matter will be referred to the Commission for Racial Equality or the police.'
Yesterday Mr Lee, who lived next to a camp in Broadclyst, Devon, before moving to Silverton, said: 'This extreme reaction would be laughable if it wasn't so tragic and damaging to my character. It is absolutely outrageous. I am not a racist.' He insisted his letter over the proposal was 'a factual report of my own first-hand experience'. He continued: 'I spent 30 years living next to a travellers' site and it was hell. ' I had lots of my farming equipment stolen. If my property wasn't bolted down, it would disappear overnight.
'The place was a complete tip with rubbish everywhere. I also witnessed some very aggressive and unpleasant behaviour. I wasn't suggesting all travellers acted in this way - of course they don't. 'I was simply pointing out what happened in my personal experience. I was within my rights to oppose the application, especially after what I've been through, without being accused of racism by some jumped-up official.' He added that the council withdrew the plan after being flooded with 50 complaints from residents.
A spokesman for Mid Devon District Council said: 'I appreciate that planning applications for gipsy and traveller sites can be quite sensitive.' She added that the authority had a 'clear policy' meaning that officials would not take into account comments 'where they could reasonably be considered to be racist'.