Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Great Repeal Bill wish list 4: Public Order Act - section 5

Andy Stephenson and Kathryn Sloane feel fairly strongly about abortion. So strongly, that they decided to mount a (peaceful) public protest outside an abortion clinic in Brighton. Their method of making their case was to display a large (7ft by 5 ft) graphic banner which showed a picture of an aborted human embryo. Police were called by a member of staff concerned that patients entering the clinic felt traumatised and upset. The Police arrived and told Mr Stephenson and Miss Sloane to take down their banner. They did so, replacing it with another similar banner. The police then arrested the pair, and took them to the police station. And there they held them for 14 hours before finally releasing them at 3 o’clock in the morning.

Mr Stephenson and Miss Sloane were released on police bail, and are due to return to court tomorrow to hear if they will be prosecuted under section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986. (Thanks to Gary Benfold for bringing this story to my notice.)

The issue, of course, is freedom of speech. I was somewhat amused by the comments of Ann Furedi, the head of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, who said she fully supported the right of pro-life activists to demonstrate against abortion clinics - but who then added: "There is a distinction between freedom of expression and actions that are designed to distress people who are accessing legal, medical services." Actually, there isn’t. And it’s not as if Mr Stephenson and Miss Sloane simply wanted to distress people for the fun of it. They were trying to make the point that what abortion does to an embryo is something very distressing.

A person is guilty of an offence if he—
(a) uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or
(b) displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting, within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby.

Section 5 was also the legislation under which Dale McAlpine was arrested.

It seems to me that Section 5 is a piece of legislation in need of repealing. I’ve asked before, but I’ll ask again: “Why do we have a law on our statute book which means that someone can be guilty of a crime simply for using "insulting" words within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused "distress"?” The words “abusive or insulting” should go. In fact, the whole section should go - since the matter of threatening behaviour is covered by Section 4 of the Act.

Now, to be honest, I don’t like the pictures that Mr Stephenson and Miss Sloane displayed. They would put me right off my cocoa and buns. But that’s not the point, is it?

So let’s hope that Section 5 is included in Mr. Clegg’s Great Repeal Act.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Paying people to have children?

In many parts of Africa, parents take the view that it is a good idea to have several children, as they are good investment for the future.

In China, the government has, in certain places, adopted a two-child policy, and even a one-child policy.

In Britain, and many other western nations, we have, since the passing of the Family Allowances Act 1945, had a policy of paying people to have children. This has recently become rather expensive, with the result that the government has decided to pay certain people to have children, but not others. (Basically, if either parent earns over £44,000 per year, they will not be paid to have children.) The logic of this has been lost on some people, and it is generally not considered one of the government's better decisions.

However, it is not the details of what the government has proposed that I want to write about - it's the concept of child benefit. What fascinates me is that just about everybody these days (at least in Europe) seems to think that taking tax-payers' money to pay people to have children is a good idea. This idea is a fairly novel one - and does not seem to have occured to many Europeans before the beginning of the 20th century. It still doesn't seem to have caught on with many people in the USA or in Africa - or for that matter in China.

Yes, I know that child benefit is an easy way of providing tax-payer's money to people who might just need it, and I'm not a Malthusian, but this idea of paying people to have children seems distinctly odd to me.

Of course, if you believe that the state is really your parent, then you'll probably think this is fair enough. But the idea that the state is your parent also strikes me as not just odd, but also dangerous.

Monday, 4 October 2010

The state, tax-payers’ money, and religion - Chinese style

This is not a new story - the BBC reported it in August - but I just found it.

Christianity is growing in China as never before - and doing so supported by millions of dollars of government funding. . . . On the outskirts of Nanjing, a building site illustrates the scale of the communist state's commitment to supporting the development of Christianity. Local officials say that the building under construction will become China's largest state-sanctioned church - with space for 5,000 worshippers. The land - and 20% of the building costs - are being provided not by local Christians, but by the municipal government. It represents state financial support worth millions of dollars - just one example of the strategy to encourage the development of religion in China.”

Yes, you read that right. It wouldn’t happen in the UK. It certainly wouldn’t happen in the USA. But the Chinese government uses tax-payers’ money to build Christian churches.

Why? According to the director general of the State Administration for Religious Affairs, Wang Zuo An,

"Such growth is unprecedented in the history of Christianity in China. Christianity is enjoying its best period of growth in China. Our goal in supporting these religions in developing religious education is that we hope they can train qualified clergy members so that their religions can enjoy better development. . . . . We are making laws and regulations to better guarantee religious belief in China."

What exactly does he mean by “better guarantee religious belief”? The words “laws and regulations” make one wonder. Since when did one need laws and regulations to better guarantee religious belief ? The answer is not in the article, but you can probably guess. It means helping religious bodies which say what the government wants them to say.

Because in China, there are two kinds of Christian churches - state registered churches and unofficial churches. Leaders of unofficial churches are often harassed, and sometimes imprisoned. So why don’t they just become state registered? Quite simply because there are long list of things that preachers in state registered churches are simply not allowed to speak about. He who pays the piper calls the tune. Of course, in China, the government has been calling the tune in state registered churches for decades - so I guess it’s nice for them when the government starts giving tax-payers’ money to the piper.

There remains an interesting question. Mr Wang told the BBC "On the question of whether there is God, the Chinese Communist Party believes there is no God in the world." Isn’t it very strange that the Chinese Communist Party still takes a view on the question of the existence of God?