Friday, December 29, 2006

Home Office action on Hate Crime

Today's BBC reports that the Home Office is publishing guidelines on dealing with homophobic hate crime - inlcuding in schools, with Government minister Tom McNulty unveiling guidance (see also a report in the Guardian education section) which can be found on the UK gay news website (

This is obviously a positive development as in many communities the extent of hate crime still is massively under reported (and in some cases this is because if you reported all of it you'd never be off the phone to the police).

Homophobic abuse is of course a very serious offence and all parties have a serious duty to eliminate it including police, schools and local authorities.

For a rather silly response to the initiative see this article in the Express, which completely misses the point.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Northern Ireland Sexual Orientation regulations

In spite of attempts by various Christian organisations to prevent it, the NI regs covering discrimination in goods and services on grounds of sexual orientation will come into force on the 1st January 2007.

Nice to start the year on a high.

An application had been made to the High Court to delay the regulations until the same time as the GB regs, but had been declined. The High Court will however have a two day hearing on 1st and 2nd March.

Also the regs may be voted on in Parliament by way of seeking an annullment ( a debate is due on the 9th in the House fo Lords).

From what I can tell the 'Christian' case against the NI regs is that the consultation was too short and that they will curtail religious freedom in contravention of the Human Rights Act.

The first ground has little to commend it.

There is of course an expectation of a consultation, which usually lasts 3 months. A consultation has in fact taken place, which was well advertised on the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM for short....) website and took as long as scheduled to take (around two months). The regs were due to enter into force in November, which would have been just after the GB regs, though these were subsequently delayed until April 2007, because of a) the number of GB responses received and b) there are only two implementation dates in GB legislation.

The NI regs therefore have been, it would appear, delayed, though not by as much as the GB regs.

Similarly the Government has published its summary and response to the consultation at about the same time as publishing the regulations.

The consultation and summary/response are prominently available on the OFMDFM website dedicated to sexual orientation here - they make for interesting reading.

If the publication of the NI consultation document was the first that any one had heard of the proposals for these regulations there might be some grounds to query however - the Equality Act with the provision for the regs was given Royal Assent in February 2006 and the GB consultation document was published on the 13th March, covering the same issues, and lasting 3 months, as well as the fact that issues relating to goods and services and sexual orientation have already been consulted on in Northern Ireland in preparation for the Northern Ireland Single Equality Bill (reporting on 22nd March 2005). So the issues have been well aired over quite some time.

The argument about curtailment of religious freedom comes in two flavours, one of which has a little more merit (in my view).

The one is that Christians may want to discriminate against someone, not out of 'prejudice' (as in for example in a racist act) but simply because of biblical teachings, which to be a true Chrsitian you need to follow all of the time.

Apart from being inherently ridiculous (insisting on the freedom to discriminate as a core part of Christian discipleship is a strange way of advertising the principle of 'love your neighbour as yourself' and basic ideas about justice, equity and fairness) if granted this would mean that all discrimination is allowed if you say to the Court "It's not prejudice, it's based on the Bible and my profound religious belief". Any regulations would be unenforcable.

This defence would be available to anyone, anywhere and is effectively a licence for anyone (church going or not) to discrimate with impunity. Furthermore has anyone met a bigot who proclaimed themselves such? They usually start with "I'm not a racist but......" "Some of my best friends are ......".

Claims for a more restricted exemption for religious businesses are equally problematic as anyone who wanted to discriminate would just put a 'fish' symbol and a picture of Jesus in the vestibule and away you go.

A more credible argument is that gay rights groups will use the new law to vex Christians by taking out spurious cases of harassment.

Potential examples have been standing in close proximity to a Bible might be construed as harassment or some one may see a book or poster on marriage (obviously these poeple have never either experienced harassment or taken a case before an employment tribunal) and feel harassed.

Well it's good to see that Christians are able to recognise that LGBT people often do feel harassed by their antics. But this is, of course, most unlikely to occur and to delay the equality law on the grounds of something that is highly improbable, though theoretically possible would clearly be inappropriate.

The examples given clearly don't amount to harassment. Yes, you could take spurious cases but costs would be awarded against you so it would be quite expensive.

It is worth remembering that the Human Rights Act gives protection for religious freedom and the freedom of expression and that 'Convention rights' can be relied on in any proceddings.

The High Court case will actually be of some help here in defining (hopefully) in advance the kind of cases that are likely to constitute harassment and what the provisions for human rights may be.

This last point is a bit thorny and the High Court will need a lot of skill to get it right, but the High Court ruling will hopefully calm the more fevered anticipations of folk of faith.

For excellent coverage of the regulations see the Thinking Anglicans weblog with some interesting insights into the mind of the religious fearful.

For a more frightening insight see any number of Christian webistes - Christian Institute, Anglican Mainstream, CARE and the Lawyer's Christian Fellowship.

The Evangelical Alliance has struck a much more reasonable tone in its response.

Also well worth a read are the proceedings of the Northern Ireland Transitional Assembly debating the regulations (the motion to call for the regs to be withdrawn was lost in a tied vote).

Finally (last but not least) the LCF page details a report of a meeting with civil servants to try to assuage the fears of Christian groups. It makes interesting reading, to say the least, most notoably that the Government do not intend to introduce protection on the ground of harassment in the GB regs, which is a disappointment. They also indicated they had no intention of introducing a 'conscience clause', though had they done so there wouldn't have been much of a point to the regulations in any case. They also said that no final decisions have been made on the content of the regs.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

2006 in review - LGBT

Amidst all the wrangling (still ongoing) in the UK over goods and services legislation, it's worth pausing to recall - especially as 2007 has been designated as the Year of Equal Opportunities for All by the European Union - what kind of a vintage 2006 has been (all references here are to the informative wikipedia LGBT timeline and the pages of ILGA).

From the LGBT standpoint - and in no particular order here are a few of the significant events-

Same sex marriage laws passsed in South Africa - the only country in Africa with partnership recognition of any kind and also demonstrating that allowing same sex couples to marry doesn't cause the sky to fall in.

The Hong Kong Government accepts a Court ruling that the ages of consent should be the same for gay and straight.

ILGA-Europe and 2 other NGO's get ECOSOC consultative status at the UN after a long struggle and 54 member states supported a statement on LGBT human rights issues by Norway - also supported by very many NGO's.

On the smaller side of things the Faroe Islands vote (narrowly) in favour of a discrimination law covering sexual orientation, and the age of consent is equalised in Jersey and Isle of Man.

The Czech Republic and Slovenia adopt a partnership law, meanwhile Uruguay, Italy and Ireland are in the process of considering some kind of partnership recognition.

At the same time the Canadian Parliament voted against reopening the issue of same sex marriage, with the Conservative Party now accepting that the issue is closed.

The Scottish Parliament votes by a large majority in favour of allowing same sex coupels to adopt.

Discrimination laws were passed in Washington and Illinois and the New Jersey legislature voted to enact a form of Civil Union in response to a unanimous ruling from the State Supreme Court.

A lot of the stories are about marriage, civil unions and partnership recognition. There is a clear trend here. Whereas opponents have been saying that this will be the end of civilisation as we know it, they have been proved wrong.

The trend is of timid legislatures (at least initially), but when obliged to act as in New Jersey, South Africa or Canada they tend to gain in conviction and the ability to be able to do the right thing.

In spite of all this progress the downside of the year is that human rights abuses still continue.

Nigeria - supported by the Anglican Church there is still in the process of debating a law which entails a 5 year prison sentence for belonging to a gay organisation, being a witness to a same sex marriage or for any positive portrayal of homosexuality.

Moscow, Latvia, Jerusalem - Pride events still encountering different forms of resistence including violence, opposition from politicians and religious groups.

Cameroon - people continue to face detention without being charged with an offence linked to homosexuality.

All of the above have in common that they are basic human rights abuses - right to a fair trial, right to freedomn of assembly and freedom of expression.

This emphasises why we need to have much more international solidarity in the coming years if we are to ensure that the kind of progress we see in some countries becomes available all over the world - and never let our guard down.

For more information see pages on the ILGA (International Lesbian and Gay Association) website.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Goods and Services - Sexual Orientation

The Govt has published the regulations for Northern Ireland covering discrimination in goods and services here.

They match the Government's original intention of legislating in this area while provising tightly drawn exemptions for 'doctinal reasons' i.e. organisaitons pertaining to religious belief and practice.

As well as substantially exempting religious organisations (but not in terms of commercial activity, education, activity undertaken on behalf of a public body and goods and services generally offered - i.e. not inclusively for members of a particular religion etc) it also includes protection against harassment.

Various organisations of the religious right in the UK have gone ballistic and are mounting a massive camapign effort to try to get the Government to withdraw the NI regulations as well as to water them down when introduced in the rest of the UK.

For UK (and slightly hysterical) reaction see here

In addition the issue has been debated by the Northern Ireland Assembly (the debate makes fascinating reading and really does very well capture the issues at stake).

Further to this the various parties opposed are taking the issue to the High Court BBC news report

Further interesting coverage can be seen in the rather interesting written questions put down by Lord Lester, which can be seen on the web site 'They Work for You'

From a religious angle a lot of the debate can be seen on the Thinking Anglican blog site (as opposed the other kind of Anglican......) for a summary see here

The Government aren't really saying much if anything at the moment. They are though (presumably) going to defend the regulations for Northern Ireland in the High Court. The GB regulations are due to come into force at the beginning of April.

My view is that where LGB people are and have a history of facing discrimination, equality law should bve there to afford a measure of equality - broad exemptions (anything other than a tightly drawn exemption like the one announced for Northern Ireland) have the effect of nullifying the effectiveness of the law - which is to create a general expectation that in the provision of goods and services, discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientaiton is unlawful.

The purpose of an equality law is to actually provide for equality, not to protect discriminatory attitudes but to combat them. Anything else is what the Bible would refer to as a "bag with holes in it" Haggai Chapter 1 verse 6.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Starting off

This is just to open the door onto the blogging world to kick the process off.

Not easy at all to do.

I was prompted into starting a blog after reading this blog; which again got me onto the issue of international human rights law.

The subject of a UK Bill of Rights is an interesting one that I intend to return to. Just for the moment, its important to recognise the extent of human rights legislation around the world, and a country like the UK simply can't extract itself from all of that.

Countries that aren't part of the ECHR are inevitably signed up to theICCPR and in any case the UK is required to sign up to the ECHR as a member of the EU.

A most pressing issue at the moment is the failure of states to recognise sexual orientation and gender identity as grounds for human rights protections and I was therefore interested to catch up with this link and this document.

More human rights links to follow.......