...free to think freely


3rd October 2019

Two Cases and a Week in Politics

Last week Parliament resumed after its prorogation was deemed unlawful and annulled. The result was not edifying to watch. Three days of inflammatory exchanges followed, each side twisting the other’s words in an apparent attempt to lower their reputation. It was a resumption of the usual political name-calling which seems to pass at present as political discourse. It does nothing to find solutions and only emphasises difference.

This week two legal cases catch our attention. The first is the action by women born in the 1950s claiming unfair discrimination in the raising of their State pension age. Many had expected to receive the pension at 60, but have to wait another five or more years, leaving them seriously disadvantaged compared with their earlier expectations. They argued this was discrimination on sexual grounds because men had not received the same increase as their pension age was already higher. They further argued it was unfair because notice of the change came too late for them to make alternative provision.

High Court judges disagreed on both these claims, concluding that it was not sexual discrimination to end a difference between women and men, and that Parliament had known about the time period over which the changes would take place when it framed the legislation.

The second is an employment tribunal claim, yet to be heard, by Seyi Omooba after she was dismissed from her rôle in a touring performance of The Color Purple because of her beliefs concerning the nature of homosexual desire and behaviour. Ms Omooba also claims she has been removed from the lists of her theatrical agent for the same reason.

If anything seems unfair about the raising of the women’s pension age, it seems less about sexual treatment than the retrospective nature of the change. When the latest change to affect them was made in 2011, these women were already in their 50s, with the bulk of their working lives behind them. They had been paying National Insurance contributions until 1995 on the understanding they would retire on a State Pension at 60; some of them would have been paying for 30 years on that basis. In 2011 they would have been paying into the scheme for 46 years. The payments are called “National Insurance”. No insurance company could accept payments for 46 years and then retrospectively change the terms of the contract to the customer’s disadvantage as the settlement date approached. Why should Government be held to a lesser standard? Changing the law on people retrospectively after they have acted in good faith is fundamentally unjust. Removing five years of benefit after people have already paid for it is dishonourable.

The Omooba case is, sadly, a familiar trope of our times. Someone makes comments explaining their personal beliefs about a moral or political issue, and because their beliefs are unorthodox in the eyes of their employers loses their job. Is this what Mrs Thatcher meant by “Victorian values?” My parents’ generation fought a war to defeat intolerant tyranny. My generation championed fearless self-expression. No one should be afraid to say what they think about an issue. That is distinct from stirring up fear, hatred or violence; indeed, in this case it is fear which is used to silence people, for we see what happens if people dare to disagree. There is no evidence Ms Omooba has threatened anyone, denounced anyone, or demeaned anyone. She has simply stated five years ago, her understanding of a social and psychological phenomenon, not with any claim to expertise, but as a matter of opinion and personal faith. This also has a retrospective feel. It is possible that today she would be more wary of expressing her view, but in 2014 she saw no harm in doing so. Now she has lost her job and prospects. How did we come to a time when people had to bow to such fear? How can people possibly believe this is an acceptable situation? No one should fear losing a job for holding an opinion not relevant to that job.

Today, some say the Prime Minister’s language as he presented his latest proposals for handling the Irish border was more conciliatory than last week. Possibly so, but, given the rough reception his proposals have received, it seems unlikely the result will be a sudden outbreak of peace. The two sides seem as far apart as ever.

Perhaps what is most needed in all these disputes is the approach Seyi Omooba is quoted as advocating—that people should learn to love one another despite their differences, to understand each other’s positions and be more open to both sides of the debate, whichever that debate might be.

(Corrected for the spelling of “harm”.)