Heavy handed police threaten NHS protest

Several hundred people gathered today in front of the Ministry of Health to protest against the Health and Social Care bill and what it will do to the NHS. During the course of the protest riot police intimidated and grabbed at protesters, held them against their will, and broke up the protest into small groups that petered out. This was suppression of protest, something that I have written about many times before. As yet the mainstream media outlets have been silent about the protest and about the policing of it. Read on for some images, videos and tweets from the day. For a detailed personal account with many pictures and videos please read This blog post by Cai Wingfield, and see the links at the end of this post for more.

https://twitter.com/#!/HeardinLondon/status/181040095707672576

Video taken by Kate Belgrave

"Outside the department of health!" - photo by @thinktyler
"Outside the department of health!" - photo by @thinktyler
"protest in Whitehall" - photo by @COPDdoc
"protest in Whitehall" - photo by @COPDdoc

 

Despite being completely peaceful, the protest received significant police attention within an hour. Large numbers of police vans arrived with Territorial Support Group (TSG – riot police) as well as armed police. The police surrounded the protesters, possibly with the intention of containing (kettling) them – that was certainly how it was perceived. The presence of armed police and being surrounded raised tensions among the protesters significantly.

https://twitter.com/#!/WailQ/status/181048809189679104

Armed police at Save the NHS protest - photo by @heardinlondon
Armed police at Save the NHS protest - photo by @heardinlondon
Armed police officer at NHS rally - photo by MELPRESSMEN MELPRESSMEN
Armed police officer at NHS rally - photo by MELPRESSMEN MELPRESSMEN
Armed police leaving NHS rally - picture by @WailQ
Armed police leaving NHS rally - photo by @WailQ

https://twitter.com/#!/Brixtonite/status/181040965920886785

https://twitter.com/#!/HeardinLondon/status/181046914572226560

https://twitter.com/#!/chris_coltrane/status/181047579600097280

Let me describe the atmosphere at this point, because in a second things get nasty. COMPLETELY peaceful. The crowd is sparse and moving at a fast walking pace. There is a little chanting but no aggro. The yellow-uniformed police are walking at the same pace of us, and have not (that I’ve heard) requested that we don’t march. The mood is very upbeat. People are smiling and laughing, happy to be doing something positive and perhaps get a little attention (there has been almost no media presence that we’ve seen, unless you count the Socialist Worker as media). The crowd is made up of people of all ages. There are young children and babies, medical students, young adults, up to middle-aged and some elderly people. There is a high proportion of people who have reduced mobility. I spot several people walking with sticks or crutches. I see someone in a wheelchair wearing a V mask, there with their V-masked family.

Now someone shouts something. I’m within a few people of the front of the march. Suddenly, to my right, tens of baseball cap-wearing cops stream out of concealment, running. They’ve obviously been waiting for us.

The mood of the crowd turns quickly to dismay. This is completely out of the blue. These new cops are highly organised and running quickly. They have helmets and truncheons on their belts. People are suddenly scared. There are shouts of “KETTLE! KETTLE!” and “RUN!” from those who see what’s about to happen. People start to run (including me). But it’s too late, they’re already blocking the way ahead of us.

Quote taken from personal account by Cai Wingfield.

Suddenly it’s clear something is happening. More shouting and running. A line of riot cops is forming ahead, their arms outstretched. Shouts of “KETTLE!” and “RUN!” again from the protesters. We start to run, searching for a break in the line or another way through. All around there is running and screaming, people don’t know what’s happening. I reach the first cops as they start to grab people. I think I see some people grabbed bodily and with serious force, but I don’t stop running. My arm is grasped at by a gloved hand, but I break free. Others are not so lucky, including some of those I’m at the demo with. The line is being held now, people are not being allowed to leave or enter the zone. I see passers by, elderly and disabled people kept inside the cordon. It’s about 4:14pm.

Quote taken from personal account by Cai Wingfield.

Riot police appear suddenly - photo by Cai Wingfield
Riot police appear suddenly - photo by Cai Wingfield
Police kettling the protesters - photo by Cai Wingfield
Police kettling the protesters - photo by Cai Wingfield

Video by Cai Wingfield

Note that the containment (“kettling”) is fairly loose; it is not the hyper-kettling favoured by the ACPO where crowds are surrounded and compressed and then held for hours as the police and horses closed in. It is people being held without charge and against their will all the same.

It seems that the police still don’t understand that modern protests are arranged through consensus and social media. They persistently try to find the leader, even though there isn’t one. (And then they often use the inability to negotiate with a leader as justification for escalating their tactics.)

https://twitter.com/#!/stavvers/status/181041462295789570

https://twitter.com/#!/HeardinLondon/status/181041678721892352

 

The protest moved away despite being surrounded by police.

https://twitter.com/#!/hangbitch/status/181048011328196608

https://twitter.com/#!/MediocreDave/status/181048591966674944

https://twitter.com/#!/piombo/status/181049537429905409

https://twitter.com/#!/directreaction/status/181050507840860160

https://twitter.com/#!/stavvers/status/181052438780985345

 

The police have not come out of this looking good.

Video taken by Kate Belgrave

https://twitter.com/#!/LosTheSkald/status/181045205229780992

https://twitter.com/#!/Ade_on_drums/status/181056068716208128

https://twitter.com/#!/HeardinLondon/status/181052526882332672

https://twitter.com/#!/HeardinLondon/status/181059824249876480

https://twitter.com/#!/JoshAJHall/status/181060643674267648

https://twitter.com/#!/JoshAJHall/status/181063903575408641

https://twitter.com/#!/HeardinLondon/status/181058210319433728

https://twitter.com/#!/HeardinLondon/status/181058624251113474

https://twitter.com/#!/Beckiebroccoli/status/181067934825844736

 

Metropolitan Police Territorial Support Group officer U1632 attacked an innocent and totally peaceful protestor, from behind, during a demonstration against NHS privatisation in London, today, 17 March 2012. U1632 ran up behind the young man and whacked him across the calves with a 2-foot long steel-core truncheon, causing his victim to collapse in agony on the pavement, before hauling him off to an unknown fate, out of sight, behind police lines.

Quote from Cop thug U1632 attacks NHS protest [indymedia]

 

I was there today. The van pulled up in front of me and three police got out with what I would identify as a machine gun but not knowing much about these things i@m not sure exactly what type of gun it was.

The protest was not at Parliament Square. It started at the dept. of health where the cenotaph is on whitehall. It moved out onto whitehall where we intended to stay, completely peacefully. A huge number of police started towards us from parliament and we broke and started moving up whitehall towards Trafalgar Square. The police were trying to kettle but the protest was keeping ahead of them. As I got to Trafalgar Square a red police van pulled up as described above.

They only stayed for a few minutes before getting back into the van but it seemed to me like they were trying to intimidate. I still can’t quite believe it. To see this at a peaceful protest in the uk is not in any way normal. I asked a police officer who was stood by the van what the reason for deployment was and he told me to ‘fucking jog on’

Some senior police I spoke to later suggested they were diplomatic police and the van was under threat but I can tell you that they came up, under no threat and made a show of getting out with the guns.

The protest had a very mixed turnout. Many older people there and a lot of disabled people. We weren’t a rabid mob threatening anyone.

Quote from voxxtrot posted at reddit

 

 

 

https://twitter.com/#!/stavvers/status/181068695160897537

 

It appears that the armed police may have been at the protest by accident, having simply been close by at the time. It should be noted that the armed police were from the Diplomatic Protection Group, a part of the Metropolitan Police that guards diplomatic residencies in London. DPG officers are routinely armed when deployed. Nevertheless, it is not appropriate to send armed police to a peaceful protest and it is not known why they were present.

https://twitter.com/#!/_gmh_/status/181091702361169920

 

More:

The NHS demo and the failure to report [Personal account by Stavvers]

Police suppression of peaceful pro-NHS protest, March 17th 2012 [Personal account by Cai Wingfield with lots of pictures and videos]

Some thoughts on machine guns, Nazis and who kettles the kettlers [soundfurynothing]

Twitter timeline and photos – Storifed by @DrNoCuts [Storify]

Blog and videos by Kate Belgrave – Save our NHS demonstration London 17 March 2012 [katebelgrave.com]

Photo set by MELPRESSMEN MELPRESSMEN [Demotix]

Photo set by Heard in London [Demotix]

There has been no coverage by any mainstream media as yet, but I will provide links here when I find any.

Grayling: mandatory is voluntary; black is white

The standard letter sent out by the Job Centre to people who have been told to attend work experience gives an extremely strong impression that there is no choice and that the claimant will lose benefits if they do not attend. The letter says:

Please note that if, without a good reason, you fail to start, fail to go when expected or stop going to the provision mentioned above (as in Section 19(5)(b) of the Jobseekers Act 1995), any future payments of Jobseeker’s Allowance could cease to be payable or could be payable at a lower rate. You could also lose entitlement to credit of National Insurance contributions. (Emphasis mine)

 

Work experience letter: you could lose benefit

Although Chris Grayling and other ministers insist that the work experience scheme is voluntary, and that the claimant can withdraw in the first week, and point out that the above letter is sent to people after they have “volunteered” for the placement, the letter clearly states “If…you fail to start” which leaves no room for doubt that the placement is mandatory. Job seekers are also commonly led to believe in person by Job Centre advisors that the work experience is not optional. Channel 4 News interviewed several people who confirmed that they had been led to believe that they had no choice in taking work placements.

Cathy Newman of Channel 4 News confronted Chris Grayling with the evidence:

Grayling makes astonishing claims in the face of evidence. First he responds with misdirection and denial:

“It could be related to a scheme which has a training module attached.”

“Let’s be absolutely clear, the scheme is voluntary.”

“Cathy, I’m afraid that’s simply not true”

Worse, he tries to get very manipulative about this:

“I’m sure you’re not telling me that I’m not telling you the truth. I’m looking you in the eyes through the camera and saying to you this is a voluntary scheme.”

Except she IS telling him that. At the start of the interview Cathy Newman said:

“Either the letter is misleading or you’re misleading.”

Finally Grayling goes for claiming he hasn’t seen the evidence:

“Look, I haven’t seen the letter that you’ve got.”

However, as Cathy Newman tweeted after the interview, it was sent to him earlier in the day.

https://twitter.com/#!/cathynewman/status/174596000936239104

What it boils down to is this. The scheme might technically be voluntary. However, if Job Centre advisers tell people that they have no choice, and if official letters state very clearly that you can lose benefit if you do not start the placement, and if job seekers are not told that they can opt out in the first week without penalty, if everyone across the UK is under the impression that the scheme is mandatory, then the scheme might as well be mandatory.

The original story: “No benefits if you don’t work for free at Maplins” [Channel 4 News]

New row erupts over unpaid work placements [The Independent]

DWP edits documents to pretend work placements weren’t compulsory

The government have been consistently claiming that the Work Experience Scheme and the Work Programme are entirely voluntary, and that only Mandatory Work Activity is compulsory. They were lying, and now we have proof.

I previously pointed out that a DWP document proves that referral to the Work Programme is mandatory in many cases. This image taken from page 7 of the DWP Work Programme Statistical Release states that job seekers aged 18 – 24 will be referred after 9 months, aged 25+ after 12 months, and ESA claimants within 3 – 6 months.

Work programme referal points

Referral to the Work Programme does not automatically mean being sent to work in an unpaid work placement, but it does give full power over your future to the contracted Work Programme provider company. Thanks to the investigative work of Johnny Void we now have proof from a DWP guide for Work Programme providers that when a provider sends a job seeker to a work placement it is compulsory. Here is an image from the relevant page of the guide.

work programme provider guidance original

Paragraph 14 states:

Work Experience for JSA Claimants

14. Where you are providing support for JSA participants, which is work experience you must mandate participants to this activity. This is to avoid the National Minimum Wage Regulations, which will apply if JSA participants are not mandated.

However, if you try to read the original document from the DWP website at this point that isn’t what you see. Instead you will see this page:

work programme provider guidance modified

The documents has been modified. The original paragraph 14 is gone and paragraph 15 has been relabelled as 14. Also note that the European Social Fund logo has been removed. Despite the changes, the version number of the document, shown at the bottom right corner, is V2.00 in both cases. Credit again goes to Johnny Void for spotting that the document had changed and finding the original document lurking in the Google cache.

You can check the Google cache for the original document at least until it updates to reflect the new one, and you can check the revised version from the DWP website. I have saved copies of both the original and the revised documents here. (My copy of the original was saved as a PDF from the Google cache.)

Work Programme Provider Guidance Chapter 3 (Original)

Work Programme Provider Guidance Chapter 3 (Revised)

Éoin Clarke has also discovered that the DWP have removed the latest version of the Work Programme prospectus from their web site, although the 2010 version is still available. The prospectus has a similar table to that at the top of this article. I have saved a copy of that document here too.

Work Programme Prospectus v2 (2010)

Not only do we have proof that Chris Grayling, Iain Duncan Smith, David Cameron and the DWP were all lying, we also have proof that the DWP silently modified their documents to remove the evidence.

We are at war with Eastasia. We have always been at war with Eastasia.

 

“Anti-capitalist extremists” – how insulting can Grayling get?

I heard yesterday that Chris Grayling had said that people protesting against work placement schemes were “anti-capitalist extremists.” I know I was offended by that, so I hunted it down on BBC iPlayer to see what he actually said. I’ve transcribed most of it here. Skip past the quote if you just want to read the worst parts and my response.

Employment minister Chris Grayling:

This is actually a protection for employers. If you’re a small business, somebody comes to do work experience, you buy them a uniform, you arrange mentoring support for them in the organisation, and then a couple of weeks later they don’t bother to turn up, erm, we’ve got to be very careful before we say there are no circumstances in which anybody will face any consequences for messing around on the scheme. But let’s be clear, it’s a voluntary scheme, you choose which sector you get work experience, you have time when you start with a work experience placement to change your mind and leave with no consequences. So, you know, this is not about manacling  young people, dragging them into tesco, doing forced labour, it’s a positive scheme which is oversubscribed. […]

Let’s have a sensible discussion, not in the face of, I mean what we’re getting at the moment, let’s be clear about this, what we’ve seen in the last few days, is a campaign that’s been run on the internet, by a small group of extremists, who are not the customers of any of these organisations, who are trying to completely misrepresent what is happening, and fortunately now I think we’ve got a bank of support that’s included today the independent newspaper which is not noted as a friend for the government […] right through to the other end of things, you know, columnists in the mail, Richard Littlejohn, you know, not naturally bedfellows with the Independent newspaper, but they’re all saying this is a good scheme. We’ve got to stand by it, we’ve got to protect it, providing short-term work experience placements for young people that is working and helping them get into jobs that is a good thing and I’m having none of this small group of anti-capitalist extremists who are driving an…[Presenter: But Tesco are not anti-capitalist extremists, they’ve heard the protests and they think they’ve got a point, Argos, apparently they’re meeting you next week, they think protesters have got a point. There’s nothing wrong with changing your mind when you’ve got it wrong.]

Well, I’m not changing my mind in a hurry in the face of instant headlines. I’m quite happy to discuss things but I’m not responding on the hoof  to this campaign, it’s a disgraceful campaign against big companies that are doing the right thing.

Chris Grayling: minister for combustible undergarments
Image by @DocHackenbush

Let me highlight just a few things that Grayling said here.

“you buy them a uniform, you arrange mentoring support for them in the organisation, and then a couple of weeks later they don’t bother to turn up, erm, we’ve got to be very careful before we say there are no circumstances in which anybody will face any consequences for messing around on the scheme.”

I can see that you don’t want people dropping out and costing employers, I don’t agree with punishment for that, but point taken.

“you have time when you start with a work experience placement to change your mind and leave with no consequences.”

Hang on… doesn’t that happen after the employer has bought a uniform and arranged mentoring? And I think that’s an admission that after that initial time, dropping out leads to an extremely harsh punishment of losing all income for at least four weeks.

“But let’s be clear, it’s a voluntary scheme, you choose which sector you get work experience”

No, mostly people get put into particular sectors by the Job Centre advisor either because of previous work history, or because that’s all they deem the jobseeker fit for.

“what we’ve seen in the last few days, is a campaign that’s been run on the internet,”

Most campaigns are run on the internet now, what’s your point? For some of us it’s the only way.

“by a small group of extremists,”

WHAT?

“who are not the customers of any of these organisations,”

Bullshit. Everyone buys food somewhere. Plenty of the people complaining shop at Tesco, although possibly not any more.

“who are trying to completely misrepresent what is happening”

This government minister is lying his head off, and WE are the one’s who are misrepresenting it?!

I think we’ve got a bank of support […] you know, columnists in the mail, Richard Littlejohn

Littlejohn is not exactly known for his tact, judgement or taste and in my experience it is best to take completely the opposite line to that taken by him.

“I’m having none of this small group of anti-capitalist extremists”

Grayling has NO evidence for his claim, and in fact labelling someone an extremist is so outrageous that I can’t even imagine how he got to that conclusion. Extremist is a word used about suicide bombers, people that flip out and shoot everyone they know, people that blow up aircraft. For someone in government to label someone an extremist just because they have a different view is ridiculous and must be curbed before any more dangerous comparisons are made.

“it’s a disgraceful campaign”

Did you get that? Telling the government that they are wrong is now “disgraceful.”

Chris Grayling, YOU are disgraceful. Your spin, your belittling language, your dismissal of objections even as you face making changes to keep your providers on board, your lies about how voluntary the scheme is, those are disgraceful.

 

More dirty tricks from government over welfare reform?

The welfare reform bill is back in the House of Commons after 14:30 today as part of “ping-pong” between the Commons and the Lords, but you wouldn’t know it if you relied on the usual methods of finding out.

The last event for this bill was debate in the House of Lords on the 14th and I have been checking the Parliament website and waiting for an email to inform me of the next event for the bill, to no avail. Until this morning the order of business for the House of Commons simply said “Consideration of Lords amendments if necessary” and until a few minutes ago the official Welfare Reform Bill web page still said that the next event was “To be announced”.

WRB webpage shows next event TBA
The WRB webpage at 11:15 today

 

The order of business for today and the official website have finally been updated with very short notice for the debate. This matters because MPs don’t always attend debates – they have many other things to do in their offices and their constituencies or elsewhere.

https://twitter.com/#!/markmiwordsblog/status/171915754663444482

The agenda for today now includes:

“Legislation

Welfare Reform Bill – Consideration of Lords amendments”

And the website for the bill now says:

Next event

  • Ping Pong | 21.02.2012

An email has finally arrived in my inbox to inform me of this update. It carries a timestamp of 7:56 but it only turned up in the last half hour.

We have to ask why the announcement of this has been delayed until the day itself. Is this normal behaviour for Parliament? Or perhaps this is an effort to bury the bill in an effort to prevent MPs who plan to rebel from turning up?

https://twitter.com/#!/johnleechmcr/status/171897318671523840

With the government also having taken measures to limit the debate today to one single hour in total and with Lord Freud having previously re-amended the Lord’s amendments late at night after peers had gone home, my money is on the latter.

Here are the proposed amendments for today: Consideration of Lords Message – Welfare Reform Bill

Update: I received an email at 11:56 which carries another development. In addition to limiting the debate to a maximum of one hour the government have now grouped together all of the amendments and objections today into one vote. [PDF]

21 FEBRUARY 2012
WELFARE REFORM BILL
Consideration of Lords Message
GROUPING PROPOSED BY THE MEMBER IN CHARGE OF THE BILL
Government motion to disagree with Lords Amendments 3B and 26B + Government motion not to insist on Amendment 19A and to agree with Lords Amendments 17B to 17D and 19B + Government motion to agree with Lords Amendment 73BA

[1 hour after commencement.

21 February 2012

By Order of the Speaker

Militant secularism

“Sorry, I don’t mean to be impolite, but can these people keep their imaginary friends and sky fairies out of law and public policy? Thanks.”

– David Allen Green tweeting as @jackofkent 11/02/2012 (Tweet now deleted.)

What struck me about this quote is that it clearly was meant to be impolite despite what he claimed. Mr Green used the phrase “imaginary friends and sky fairies” which is fine for him to think and to say, but he is clever enough to know that it would offend the people that he was nominally aiming the message at. Adding a false apology to this message simply reinforced the offensiveness of the message. I suspect that the message was not really meant for the people it was addressed to, but rather as something to stir up popularity among followers and controversy and reaction among religious people. Trolling, in fact. Something that newspaper headlines were also doing on Saturday:

Daily Mail front page - "Christianity under attack"Times front page - "Christianity on the rack as judge bans public prayer"

Images read “Christianity under Attack” (Daily Mail) and “Christianity on the rack as judge bans public prayer” (The Times)

These misleading headlines were a reaction to a high-court judgement on Friday which found that Bideford Council could not hold prayers as part of their council sessions.  The objection by the National Secular Society to requiring people to attend these prayers was that they made it very uncomfortable for  Councillor Clive Jones – or indeed any other non-Christian – and left him with a choice of sitting through the prayers or walking out and looking bad. This is not a problem unknown to Christians, and the NSS cite the example of a Christian councillor who walked out of a Portsmouth council meeting because they invited a muslim imam to pray. I accept that this councillor does not represent all Christians but the example does show that the problem affects all sides. The ruling on Friday disagreed with the argument put by the NSS and found that prayer in council meetings does not violate human rights and is not discrimination.

Part of the judgement said:

“A local authority has no powers under section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972 to hold prayers as part of a formal local authority meeting or to summon councillors to such a meeting at which prayers are on the agenda.

“The saying of prayers in a local authority chamber before a formal meeting of such a body is lawful provided councillors are not formally summoned to attend.” – Mr Justice Ouseley

This judgement did not forbid prayer by the council members, nor prayer in public. What it did was to assert that the council had no power under the current law to hold prayer as part of the formal council meeting (in this case, included in the minutes) or to make it compulsory for councillors to attend those prayers. In fact the law that was referred to does not refer to prayer at all, merely as to what other things the council can include in meetings to support their work.

Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles hasn’t even grasped what the judgement is. He said:

“Public authorities – be it Parliament or a parish council – should have the right to say prayers before meetings if they wish.”

This of course is exactly what the the ruling said, as I quoted earlier. Pickles has stated that the Localism Act which will come into force in a few weeks does include powers that will make it possible to include prayer as part of council meetings, reversing the judgement anyway. What is very worrying is that Pickles has publicly stated that councils should “continue to have prayers if they want to” in violation of the law as it is now.

Secular State

The United Kingdom is officially a Christian country. I firmly believe that all government should be secular and there should be no state-endorsed religion, instead leaving everyone free to believe or not as they wish. The concept that the state should not impose a religion on anyone is not new. In the USA the first amendment to the constitution says:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

In a letter  to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802 Thomas Jefferson expanded on this when he wrote:

“I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.” [Quote via Wikipedia]

US courts have found that organisations such as schools should not hold formal prayer as a result of the first amendment, as in the recent ruling against a school having a prayer displayed on a banner in Ahlquist v Cranston. [Daily Mail] Despite the law being on their side people who object to prayer in schools in the USA are often the subject of abuse and death threats.

I believe that the backlash against the people involved in these cases is a very good argument as to why the state should be secular. It is obvious that people in a minority will be discriminated against and marginalised, even more so when they point out this fact. I think that the very existence of human rights is down to a need to protect minorities and vulnerable groups from tyranny by the majority, and actions by those above show a need to protect the freedom to not be part of a religion as much as they protect the freedom of those who are part of a religion.

 

One of the problems that we face in our society is that there appears to be an unresolvable conflict between advertising standards and freedom of speech. I suspect that there are quite a few such clashes. One example is this recent ruling by the Advertising Standards Agency that a flyer given out by a group called Healing On The Streets (HOTS) violated advertising standards by promising healing. Not only did the flyer make claims which could not be proven or backed up with medical trials, they also offered prayer for healing from cancer. It is actually illegal to talk about treating or curing cancer in advertising in any way at all under the Cancer Act 1939:

(1)No person shall take any part in the publication of any advertisement—

(a)containing an offer to treat any person for cancer, or to prescribe any remedy therefor, or to give any advice in connection with the treatment thereof;

It is important to note that the ASA ruling affects advertising only. It does not prevent HOTS from believing that god can heal these afflictions or praying. The originator of the complaint was concerned that people might stop taking medication and then suffer as a result. She took pains to point out on her blog that she has also made complaints against claims made for homeopathy and is not opposed to Christianity.

Human Rights

There can also be conflict between human rights law and religion. For an example of this we can look at the case of Christian owners of a guest house in Cornwall who refused to allow a gay couple to stay in a double bed in their guest house because they thought it would be promoting sin. The couple lost a legal case brought against them and their actions were found to be discrimination under equality laws. This wasn’t an attacked by secularists, the couple violated human rights law which was put in place by government to protect people. That same law allows freedom of conscience and religion which also allows freedom from religion.

Militant Secularism

Chair of the Conservative party, Baroness Warsi has reacted to recent court cases by claiming that “a militant secularisation is taking hold of our societies.” She goes on:

“We see it in any number of things: when signs of religion cannot be displayed or worn in government buildings; when states won’t fund faith schools; and where religion is sidelined, marginalised and downgraded in the public sphere. It seems astonishing to me that those who wrote the European Constitution made no mention of God or Christianity”

Leaving aside the accusation of militant secularisation for a moment, Warsi’s comment about the constitution frightens me. I believe that just like the first amendment of the US constitution, all constitutions and governments should be distinct from religion. This isn’t to wipe out or reduce any religion, but to ensure that people of all religions and none will be protected from discrimination. Putting Christianity in to the European Constitution would discriminate against Muslims, Sikhs, Jews and Hindus as much as it would against agnostics and atheists.

Writing in the Telegraph, Warsi continued:

For me, one of the most worrying aspects about this militant secularisation is that at its core and in its instincts it is deeply intolerant. It demonstrates similar traits to totalitarian regimes – denying people the right to a religious identity because they were frightened of the concept of multiple identities.

None of the people pursuing complaints against false advertising, prayer in council meetings, discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or prayer in schools were doing anything they shouldn’t. They were all trying to uphold the law as it stands by having it enforced. The laws already exist and others are merely pointing out this fact. And this seems to be what “militant atheists” do. We aren’t exactly overrun with atheist suicide bombers. Instead they object to the law being broken. They make complaints when they are discriminated against. They attend an occasional protest rally such as the One Law For All event last Saturday. They fail to respect religion in what they say. But why should anyone have to avoid saying things that aren’t respectful? It is everyone’s right to believe that Christianity is nonsense just as much as it is for them to believe in Jesus. If you turn that around, Christians fail to respect atheists when they shout that Jesus saved them. The phrases “militant secularism” or “militant atheism” seem to mean that someone has been offended by atheists. Atheists can’t help it if religious people are offended by their mere existence or by what they talk about with each other. Both parties are being daft about this – Christians and atheists must learn not to take offence at each other’s statements when they disagree.

Militant Atheist
Comic from atheistcartoons.com. Note, portrays extremists, not everyone!

Having said that, it is clear that Christians and secularists are caught in a loop where their offence is feeding from each other and growing as a result. I want a secular society where all faiths and none can live together.  Baroness Warsi’s accusation of militant secularism made me react by getting angry and wanting to become militant which is probably not what she intended. But conversely, the quote which I opened with made Christians that I know who also want a secular society react angrily against the sentiment expressed. They agreed with the sentiment, but were furious at the insult contained in the statement. Insults turn everyone against your message, not just the ones that are affecting you.

No one has a right not to be offended. Human rights guarantee freedom of conscience, religion and expression but they don’t force anyone to listen. However, setting out to deliberately offend people does not win them over to your side. Either side.

Further reading

Council loses court battle over prayer sessions before meetings [Guardian]

Council Prayers unlawful rules High Court [NSS]

Government tells councils to carry on praying despite High Court ban [Telegraph]

Christian guesthouse owners lose appeal over ban on gay guests [Telegraph]

We stand side by side with the Pope in fighting for faith [Telegraph]

Militant secularisation threat to religion, says Warsi [BBC]

George Carey: time to say that Christians have rights too [Telegraph]

Religious and Social Attitudes of UK Christians in 2011 [Ipsos MORI]

Healing claims being made across the UK [Hayley is a ghost]

Healing on the Streets & why I am not ‘a group generally opposed to Christianity’ [Hayley is a ghost]

 

You can’t keep religion out of politics

Signpost: Religion / politicsReligion and politics are inexorably linked and we should respond to that through debate and democracy, not through attacking religion.

There are as many different reasons for entering politics as there are people who enter politics. Some see an injustice that they must correct. Some are personally affected by a policy and wish to change it. Some don’t care about policy as long as they have power or wealth. And some wish to shape the world as their religious beliefs tell them it should be, and that is not always a bad thing.

Politics and religion have always been intertwined and there are many political movements that emerged from religious roots. Of course there are as many religious viewpoints as there are non-religious, and so we see both Christian Socialism which has shaped the Labour party since the 1960s and at the same time we see the Conservative party full of Christians with right-wing policies. Religion is no guarantee of good or bad policies any more than atheism is but there is overlap between religious and non-religious policies and ideals so that religious roots may have no impact on whether a policy is considered good or bad by someone who is not religious.

I believe that religion and state should be separate. I think that when the state has an official religion, that religion is likely to be imposed on others by mandating prayers, services or ceremonies as part of government business and perhaps in other areas. We see lots of examples of this in the UK with prayers at the start of parliament sessions, and a religious oath before giving testimony in a court of law. (Although it is possible to opt out of this now.) I believe that in a multicultural multi-faith society this is wrong. Instead all government and all public services ought to be secular, without preventing anyone from following their religion. If politicians wish to pray about their duties I don’t have a problem with that, but like  the councillor who recently won a court case to prevent prayer from being incorporated in the official agenda of council meetings, I believe that it should happen outside of the official government process. I believe that laws which impose a religious belief on us are a bad thing. I do not believe that government should impose any religious beliefs about who may marry who, or allow discrimination based on sexuality or any other attribute. I wish that religious politicians would not try to impose their morality on other people but instead stick to ensuring equality and justice for all.

For people who are raised in a religious environment there is unlikely to be any difference between their opinions formed through their upbringing and those that spring from their religion and so even if they wanted to, they could not separate the two. In any case, we cannot ask that people’s opinions are not shaped by their religion as to do so is to deny freedom of conscience, freedom of religion and freedom of expression which are all basic human rights. We must be allowed to think and believe freely. In a democracy people from any viewpoint should have the right to stand for election and to represent their voters if elected. Since we cannot prevent religion from shaping people’s opinions, the only way to oppose bad policies is to elect people of a different viewpoint and out-vote the policy. Of course in some cases this is impossible, such as in the case of Anglican bishops with a place in the House of Lords. I do not believe that bishops should have an automatic right to be in the House of Lords, but then it is not democratic anyway and the whole thing needs reform.

It is common to see people oppose a policy because the politician behind it is religious. I think this is disingenuous. Bad policy should be opposed because it is bad policy, not because of where it came from. If the only reason behind a policy is religion with no other factors then yes by all means oppose it on that basis, but if a Christian politician proposes a policy that you disagree with but has reasons other than their faith, attack the reasons and not their faith. To attack a policy merely because the politician behind it is religious is a bad argument and based on bigotry not reason.

 

Benefit guilt

I recently wrote about my income in detail. I did so partly because the benefits that I receive were listed in a newspaper (My own fault) without actually explaining them, and the amounts caused a few negative comments.

Since making my income public one thing that has been bothering me is that while my wife and I now receive enough money to live on and DLA to provide for the extra costs of my care and mobility, a vast  number of my friends do not. And I feel sort of guilty about that. I know that I shouldn’t, I am getting the proper benefits for my circumstances, but I feel horrible that other people – many with greater need than me – don’t get the help that they are supposed to get.

I went through a Work Capability Assessment with Atos and I was placed in the support group. I know that I am sick enough to merit ESA and DLA but it was always in doubt whether Atos would recognise that. I can’t help wondering what would have happened if my journey to the assessment centre hadn’t been so awful. (You can read about that travesty on a previous blog post.) If I hadn’t arrived shaken, stressed and exhausted perhaps my assessment would have gone quite differently – Atos have been criticised for ignoring variable health problems and could easily have judged me differently if I had appeared well that day.

Perhaps it is chance that I ended up in the Support Group for ESA rather than the Work Related Activity Group or even found fit for work. But then my DLA was awarded on the basis of the Work Capability Assessment too, even though that isn’t supposed to happen until PIP is introduced. So is that two benefits received by pure chance? Being awarded ESA helped me to get DLA and getting DLA has increased the amount that I get from ESA, and both of those ensure that I get housing benefit too. At some point I may get carers allowance although that might lower the amount that I get from ESA.

The point is, I now have enough to live on without being in poverty and always struggling to pay the bills. Many other people are not so lucky. What I really want is for access to these benefits to be available to all the other people that need it. I have so many friends who haven’t got the benefits that they so desperately need. Friends who can’t walk, or can’t get out of bed, or can’t cook for themselves. Friends who have been through the assessments by Atos and refused on absurd grounds. Friends who are in hospital near death and don’t get benefits. I was really terrified that I wasn’t going to get my ESA, and the form filling for benefits and the assessment process itself made me more stressed which led to me being more physically ill too.

Even when people have managed to get all the benefits to which they are entitled it isn’t always enough. I need relatively few adjustments to live. A wheelchair, a shower seat. Some people need hoists and lifting equipment and wet rooms and stairlifts and bigger rooms to fit it all in… and the list goes on. Of course some of that can be paid for in other ways such as from council funds or (until now) the Independent Living Fund but many people end up sorting out their own adaptions. I talked to my GP about getting an NHS wheelchair yesterday and she suggested that it would be quicker and easier to buy one for myself. (Not that I can’t try to get an NHS one.) That happens a lot with costlier items too.

Clearly the benefits system isn’t great at the moment. It’s obvious that it needs reform to solve these problems. But – and this is an important but – the Welfare Reform Bill doesn’t solve these problems. It makes them far worse. It abolishes multiple sources of funding, it cuts the DLA / PIP budget by 20% and it restricts who can get help and who will receive PIP. Government ministers have told us that those most in need will get more help. What they are less keen to tell everyone is that the extra help for those most in need is being snatched away from those who are only quite in need. If you need help but not loads of help, that’s tough. Because the government says you’re not going to get any help at all.

Invisible Invincible – Pod Delusion report

My report from the Invisible Invincible protest is now on The Pod Delusion podcast. Unfortunately it had to be cut by quite a lot to fit the available space, but you can read my original text below. It is largely based on a previous blog post with some added explanation.

My report starts at 15:17 in to the podcast. An MP3 file is available for download via The Pod Delusion website.

Continue reading “Invisible Invincible – Pod Delusion report”