James Somerville-Meikle: The Conservative Party and the Catholic community can find much common ground

22 Jan

James Somerville-Meikle is a committee member of Catholics in the Conservative Party.

As the dust settled on post war Britain, Winston Churchill asked Sir Hugh Fraser, then MP for Stafford, to help get more Catholics involved in the Conservative Party.

Sir Hugh was one of a tiny number of Catholic Conservative MPs in the post-war Parliament. Things have got better since then, but it’s fair to say there is room for improvement in relations between the Conservative Party and the Catholic community in this country.

It’s perhaps fitting that as our country, and our Party, begins the task of rebuilding from the pandemic – arguably the greatest challenge faced since the second world war – there is renewed energy in making the Conservative Party a home for Catholics.

Almost 70 years since Churchill identified the problem, this month sees the inaugural AGM of a new group for Catholics in the Conservative Party. It’s a grassroots group – set up by people who want to build bridges between their faith and politics.

There are many reasons why it makes sense to improve relations with the 4.5 million Catholics in Britain, but perhaps the most obvious is that there is a great deal of overlap between the teachings of our Church and the values of our Party – something that should be promoted. On top of this, the Catholic church continues to have an active role in providing services, not least running ten per cent of schools in England.

Catholic Social Teaching is a treasure trove for policy-makers with its focus on the part each person can play in building the common good. But this has too often been a treasure trove raided by the Left rather than the Right in this country.

It’s not that long ago that there were some parts of the country where the Labour parliamentary candidate almost had to be a Catholic, and the role of people like Cardinal Manning – who famously supported the London dockers strike in 1889 – was a celebrated part of Labour’s folk law.

And yet the appeals to individual responsibility, compassion, and the dignity of people, contained in Catholic Social Teaching are themes that also fit within Conservative thinking. It’s this centre-right interpretation of the common good that has inspired groups like the Centre for Social Justice, founded by Iain Duncan Smith – one of our most prominent Catholic MPs.

Of course, even amongst Conservatives, there will be disagreement about how the teachings of the Church can best be put into practice. Part of the thinking behind this new group is to provide a place to have these discussions. There are no right or wrong answers. You will find committed Catholics on every wing of the Party and every level of government. We want to bring together Conservatives who are committed to bringing about the common good, whoever they are and whatever their background.

Sometimes just having the conversation can be helpful. Labour, with its tradition of Christian socialism, perhaps has a head start on us in this regard. Countless words have been written about how Christianity can be put into practice on the Left of politics, which has helped to raise the profile for a particular brand of left-wing thinking in the Catholic church.

We have some catching up to do, but the foundations are there. Whether it’s the role of figures like the Duke of Wellington and Robert Peel in bringing about Catholic emancipation in this country or the work of David Burrowes and Tim Montgomerie in founding the Conservative Christian Fellowship – we have our own story to tell, but sometimes we’re not very good at telling it.

Our new group not only aims to strengthen links between Catholics already in the Party, but also make it more appealing to Catholics who don’t see the Conservative Party as their natural home.

For some people, getting involved in the local church can be the first step into politics, but Conservatives have been slow to recognise the potential of Catholic churches to produce leaders of the future. How many church readers or parish council members are there in this country who would make fantastic Conservative candidates for local council, devolved bodies, or Parliament? But we don’t ask them and perhaps our Party has not always looked that welcoming.

There has perhaps never been a better time to improve relations with the Catholic community in this country. A quick look at the electoral map shows the areas where the Conservatives gained seats in 2019 – the North West and North East of England – are also places where the Catholic church in this country has traditionally been strongest. It’s encouraging that two of the parliamentary patrons for Catholics in the Conservative Party – Alexander Stafford and Marco Longhi – are from the 2019 intake who won their seats from Labour.

If we want to maintain the trust of voters in these areas, it will mean getting under the bonnet of what makes people in these communities tick. In places like Blaydon in Gateshead, where my Grandma lives, the local church is an important part of the local community. These are often the places where the values of “faith, flag and family” remain strong as David Goodhart described in his book The Road to Somewhere.

At a time when the importance of culture and identity in politics only seems to be getting stronger, we ignore people’s values at our peril. At the next election we will face a smarter challenge from Labour. I’ve lost track of the number of times Sir Keir Starmer has mentioned “family” recently – framing his latest free school meals intervention as an attack on the Conservative’s record on support for families. We need to get smarter too.

That is not to say our Party needs to become Catholic to maintain the ground we have gained. I don’t expect to see the Vatican flag flying from CCHQ anytime soon! But it should make us more prepared to listen and engage with the Catholic community in this country. We might be surprised by the amount of common ground we find.

The Conservative Party has made great strides in recent years engaging with groups that are under-represented in politics – particularly women and people from black and ethnic minorities. If this new group can harness some of that energy and enthusiasm for outreach work with the Catholic community, which itself is extremely diverse, then there could be benefits for everyone. Our Party has always been at its best when it is a broad church, in every sense.

Perhaps, as Churchill would say, the relationship between Catholics and the Conservative Party is only at the end of the beginning.

Edward Leigh: If Pakistan won’t crack down on the kidnapping of young girls, we should cut off aid

24 Nov

Sir Edward Leigh is Member of Parliament for Gainsborough.

On 13th October, in Karachi, Pakistan, 13-year-old Catholic girl Arzoo Raja, was kidnapped in broad daylight by a 44-year-old man called Ali Azhar. Her parents were told she had converted to Islam and decided to marry him.

Her parents went straight to the police and produced a National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) birth certificate showing she is 13. They argued the marriage was invalid in line with the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act, that forbids marriage to anyone under the age of 18.

Yet, on 29th October, the Karachi High Court ruled that she was neither abducted nor had she been forced to marry.

Three days later, after protests and international criticism, the court changed its mind and Arzoo was “recovered” and placed in a women and girls’ shelter. There was a medical examination of Arzoo which found she is “around 14 years of age”. Her abductor is now on judicial remand and Arzoo is still in the shelter.

Unfortunately, cases such as Arzoo’s are not uncommon in Pakistan. In April, another Catholic girl, 14-year-old Maira Shahbaz, was bundled into a car at gunpoint by three men during the lockdown in Madina Town, near Faisalabad.

As with Arzoo, Maira’s mother was told her daughter had married one of the men who abducted her, Mohamad Nakash Tariq, and converted to Islam.

Maira’s family also went to the police with a NADRA birth certificate. This time it showed she was 14. Nakash said she was 19. The case went to court and eventually the Lahore High Court ruled in Mr Nakash’s favour. The marriage was valid. She had “embraced Islam”.

Two weeks after this decision, Maira escaped Nakash and went straight to the police. She told them:

“I found myself at an unknown place where the accused forced me to have a glass of juice that contained some intoxicant. I was semi-conscious at that moment and the accused raped me forcefully and also filmed me naked. When I came to my senses, I started shouting and requesting them to release me…They threatened to murder my whole family. They have also shown me my naked video and pictures which they have taken on their mobile while raping me.”

Maira is now on the run, with extremist mobs going door-to-door looking for her. In their eyes, she is an apostate and they will kill her if they find her. This is why for #RedWednesday this year, Aid to the Church in Need have launched a campaign calling on Maira to be granted asylum to the UK so that she can rebuild her life free of this threat. They have launched a petition which has been signed by over 8,500 people.

Sumera Shafique, her lawyer, said: “Maira’s life is in constant danger because she is condemned as an apostate by her abductor and his supporters. Unless Maira and her family can leave Pakistan they will always be at risk of being killed.”

These are not isolated examples. The Movement for Solidarity and Peace in Pakistan calculate that every year in Pakistan, up to 1,000 Christian and Hindu girls and young women between the ages of 12 and 25 are abducted.

Pakistan is the biggest recipient of UK aid. It is reported that we pay an estimated £383,000 per day in aid to Pakistan. Over 20 years, it adds up to £2.8 billion. In 2019/20 we sent £302 million. In 2018/19 it was £325 million. Should we really send such a large sum of taxpayers’ money to a country where women are treated so poorly? What message are we sending by funding a country that treats its religious minorities so abhorrently?

Cases like Arzoo and Maira’s are endemic in a society that has serious issues with its treatment of women and religious minorities. To be both a Christian and a woman in Pakistan is a double jeopardy. The ostracisation they face on a daily basis puts them in a dangerous position. They are soft targets for predatory and rapacious men. For example, Maira had been forced to drop out of school and work because her family are so poor. That she also has no father around made her more vulnerable.

Archbishop Sebastian Shaw of Lahore spoke to ACN about the kidnappings of these girls, condemning it as a “crime”. He said: “Yes [abductions of under-age girls] are happening” and added that “there have been many kidnappings recently.”

He added: “Kidnapping is a crime. It has to be treated as one. This is the only way to stop it. The girls are usually 14, 15. The men often already have one wife. They can be 25 or older. They can be younger, more like 20.”

As Archbishop Shaw rightly points out, both Azhar, Arzoo’s abductor, and Nakash Tariq, Maira’s abductor, were middle-aged and already married with children. Nakash Tariq has two young children. Archbishop Shaw also raised another motivation for the men. He said: “It is lust. They think ‘she is pretty I want her’. It is a crime. But it has a possible religious component too.”

According to these men, the girls, of their own volition, decided to convert and get married. Yet, a number of questions arise. Why is it only ever young girls so desperate to convert to Islam? Why never young boys? Why never middle-aged women? Why never middle-aged men?

Further, quite why Maira would need to be bundled into a car at gunpoint – an event captured on CCTV – when she was converting of her own desire is unclear. And if Arzoo was such a willing convert and would-be bride, why was she only taken as soon as her parents left for work?

The evidence suggests that the problem of abduction, rape, and forced marriage and conversion to Islam of underage girls of religious minorities is a serious problem in Pakistan. ACN told me that their contacts estimate that there are probably far more than 1,000 cases each year, but families are too scared or too poor to raise them.

The UK needs to use its position as a global power, and generous benefactor of Pakistan, to deal with this problem. It is unclear to me the wisdom of sending such an administration vast sums of money. Perhaps for the government of Pakistan to bring about the requisite change, we need to hit them where it hurts: their coffers.

Allowing illegal migrant boats to cross the Channel is false compassion

12 Aug

The media narrative, as so often, has portrayed the story as toughness versus tenderness. Those who are idealistic and caring are on the side of welcoming the beleaguered refugees crossing the Channel to Dover in precarious dinghies. They are cheered on by the BBC and The Guardian. Then we have those who sternly declare that the law must be upheld, our borders protected, national interest upheld. Nigel Farage, the Brexit Party leader, was ahead of the “mainstream media” in highlighting the sharp increase in the numbers coming over this summer. Thus he is a convenient stage villain.

The reality is a bit more complicated. There is an important debate to be had about how many refugees we could and should take in. Of course, this is a moral issue. But it is also a practical one. One of the arguments for ending free movement with the EU is that it should be easier to accept more refugees. It would also help ease the financial costs if the ban on asylum seekers was lifted and they could live in spare bedrooms rather than only self contained accommodation.

Some fail to back up “virtue signalling” rhetoric with action. David Cameron announced, in September 2015, the Syrian Vulnerable People’s Resettlement Scheme, with a target of 20,000. The Labour Party immediately complained it was too low – yet Labour (and Lib Dem) councils had a poor record of offering places for them.

Once we have decided how many to help, there is the question of which ones. The monitoring group Open Doors estimates 260 million Christians around the world face persecution. I would like to see us offer more of them sanctuary. Our special responsibility to Hong Kong is another priority that has been highlighted.

So far as the Syrians are concerned, should we be taking them from the overcrowded UN refugee camps – in a legal and (relatively safe) manner? Or should we just fill up the allocation by allowing those to stay who have jumped the queue and managed to make it here illegally? In the case of Syrians, for example, should we take them from the camps in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon? Or from Calais?

Last year it is estimated that at least 1,885 migrants died in the Mediterranean. Of course, it is impossible to know the full number. The UNHCR have put it at six a day. The greater the chance of being able to stay, the higher the numbers that will pay whatever they can to the criminal gangs of “people traffickers” and risk drowning to get to Europe.

Much the most effective method is to prevent the asylum seekers arriving in England in the first place. The Times reports:

“Ministers are considering using 42m-long Border Force cutters to stop boats from reaching Britain’s territorial waters. The French authorities would then be contacted to intercept them, with a focus on intelligence sharing.

“The government has moved away from a more aggressive Australian-style “push-back” approach, which would have involved Royal Navy and Border Force vessels intercepting boats as they left French waters.”

Critics of the proposal include Jack Straw who warns that amidst the confrontation the dinghies could capsize and its occupants drown. Then we have unnamed sources suggesting that it is impractical or disproportionate. Logistical considerations are important. If Border Force boats can do an effective job of escorting the asylum seekers back to France then I can see that might well be safer (and a lower cost to the taxpayer) than bringing in the vessels of the Royal Navy. It is also reasonable to note that the Channel is smaller that the Indian Ocean and so rather than duplicating Australian arrangements it would be sensible to have our bespoke version.

But whatever the operational details, the broad thrust of the Australian approach has been completely vindicated and it would be right for us to follow it. In 2013, Tony Abbott, the new Australian Prime Minister, ensured that illegal boats heading for his country were towed to an offshore centre. From there they were able to make a claim for asylum. But if it was rejected they could return home but not to Australia. Between 2008 to 2013 there were 877 asylum seekers who drowned en route to Australia. Since then none have.

Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, says:

“The number of illegal small boat crossings is appalling. We are working to make this route unviable and arresting the criminals facilitating these crossings and making sure they are brought to justice.”

Naturally many on the Left will vilify her for taking a strong line – while most people will recognise that controlling who comes into our country is pretty basic to national security. So taking the necessary action is a patriotic duty. But it is also a moral duty. Allowing illegal crossings and rewarding those who survive them with residency is false compassion. By firmly putting a halt to the practice, Patel can save many lives and ensure that whatever sanctuary we can offer, is granted fairly to genuine cases in the greatest need.

James Somerville-Meikle: The SNP’s overhaul of hate crime legislation is a threat to freedom of expression in Scotland

7 Aug

James Somerville-Meikle is Head of Public Affairs at the Catholic Union of Great Britain.

What do Catholic Bishops and the National Secular Society have in common?

Despite their different world views, they have found common ground in opposing the SNP’s overhaul of hate crime legislation – which both groups fear will damage freedom of expression in Scotland.

The Scottish Government’s Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill was introduced earlier this year with the aim of helping to “build community cohesion”. It has proved more effective than Scottish Ministers could ever have imagined. Most of civil society in Scotland is now united in opposition to the Bill.

A recent consultation by Holyrood’s Justice Committee revealed the full extent of this opposition – which goes well beyond the usual nationalist critics. The Society of Scottish Newspapers, the Law Society of Scotland, and the Scottish Police Federation, have all publicly called for a rethink from the Scottish Government.

A new campaign group – Free to Disagree – has started to oppose the Bill, led by former SNP Deputy Leader Jim Sillars, the National Secular Society, and the Christian Institute. To have brought together such a diverse range of opponents is a pretty impressive achievement by the SNP’s Justice Secretary, Humza Yousaf.

But it’s the criticism from the Scottish Catholic Bishops which is perhaps the most striking.

In their submission to the Justice Committee, the Bishops warn that “a new offence of possessing inflammatory material could even render material such as the Bible and the Catechism of the Catholic Church… inflammatory.”

Let’s be clear what this means – the Catholic Church, which counts around 700,000 followers in Scotland, is worried that legislation currently being considered by the Scottish Parliament could make expressing their beliefs a criminal offence.

The Bishops acknowledge their concerns are based on a “low threshold” interpretation of the proposed new offence. But the fact that such concerns exist at all is extraordinary.

Catholic Bishops in Scotland choose their battles carefully – conscious of a public sphere that does not take kindly to lectures from Bishops. The strength of their public comments shows just how much concern there is about the Bill. It’s also perhaps a sign they think this is one area where they might be able to force a change of approach from the Scottish Government.

The Bill would also introduce a new offence of “stirring up hatred” against certain groups, even if a person making the remarks had not intended any offence.

Currently in Scotland, the offence of “stirring up hatred” only applies in respect of race, but this would be expanded under the Bill to include “age, disability, religion, sexual orientation, transgender identity, and variation in sex characteristics.”

This huge expansion of the law is not combined with any definition of what “stirring up hatred” means. The Bill’s Explanatory Notes say that an offence could be committed through “behaviour of any kind”, which “may consist of a single act or a course of conduct.” In other words, pretty much anything could constitute an offence.

Crucially, criminal behaviour under the new law would be based on offence caused, rather than intended – a significant difference to England and Wales where intent is required for a person to be criminalised for behaviour which someone finds insulting. As a result, it risks creating a situation in which offending becomes an offence.

It’s little wonder that police officers, lawyers, and journalists are deeply worried about the proposals. The Bill paints broad brush strokes and leaves others to work out the picture. The task of interpreting a law where offences are not wholly within your control but based on how others perceive your words and actions, is fraught with perils.

Catholic Bishops fear this could lead to a “deluge of vexatious claims”. The Scottish Police Federation warns it could mean officers “determining free speech”, leading to a breakdown in relations with the public. And the Law Society of Scotland raised concerns that “certain behaviour, views expressed or even an actor’s performance, which might well be deemed insulting or offensive, could result in a criminal conviction under the terms of the bill as currently drafted.” Not exactly the cohesive society envisaged by the Scottish Government.

At the heart of this debate is a fundamental question about what a cohesive and tolerant society looks like. Does tolerance require conformity and removing any possible source of offence? Or does it mean accepting and respecting difference of opinion within certain red lines?

To use No 10’s language – it’s a question of whether we level up or level down when it comes to freedom of expression. In the case of the SNP’s proposals, it looks like a race to the bottom.

This is not an enviable position. As Stephen Evans from the National Secular Society points out:

“Freedom to say only what others find acceptable is no freedom at all.”

There is still time for the Scottish Government to reconsider its approach. Most of the groups opposed to the Bill, including the Catholic Bishops, agree that stirring up hatred is wrong, and would welcome an update to hate crime legislation. But the current approach is not working and Scottish Ministers must realise that.

Creating a catch-all offence, and passing the buck to the police and courts, is not the way forward. It’s sloppy law-making, and risks threatening the vibrancy and diversity of life in Scotland.

The publication of the Bill has shown that people with completely different views are capable of respecting one another, and even working together for a common cause.

What unites religious and secular voices is a belief in freedom of expression. This must be upheld, or we will all suffer as a result.