Friday, December 15, 2006


Two elderly spinster sisters face the agony of selling the home they have shared for 40 years when one of them dies after judges ruled they are not entitled to the same rights as gay and lesbian couples. Joyce and Sybil Burden, who have lived together all their lives, argued they should be spared inheritance tax in the same way as married couples, or homosexuals who form a civil partnership. But yesterday the European Court of Human Rights threw out their case, by a 4-3 verdict, landing them with a 10,000 pound legal bill and facing certain future heartbreak.

The sister who lives the longest will now be forced to sell the family home when the other dies in order to raise the 61,000 pound inheritance tax bill owed to the Treasury. Joyce, 88, said the sisters had only wanted the same protection given to lesbians and gays - who pay nothing. They are spared any duty to allow their loved one to remain in their shared home. Joyce said last night: "I am terribly upset by this and I just don't know what we are going to do. "We have spent our lives looking after people and never once done anything wrong. And now we are being punished for doing the right thing. "This government is always going out of its way to give rights to people who have done nothing to deserve them. "If we were lesbians, we would have all the rights in the world. But we are sisters, and it seems we have no rights at all. It is disgusting that we are being treated like this. It is an insult."

Joyce and Sybil, 80, who have been asking the Government to look at their case for 30 years, decided to write to the European courts after Labour introduced the Civil Partnership Act in 2004. To their dismay, this granted the same right to gay and lesbian couples to avoid inheritance tax as married couples, but not to cohabiting family members. After writing a simple letter to the European Court of Human Rights, they were stunned when it responded saying it would hear their case. Their letter, written without any legal advice, read: "In desperation we write to you, for, as second-class citizens, we seek justice against the unfair laws we live with in the British Isles." The sisters, whose three-bedroom house on farmland near Marlborough, in Wiltshire, was built for 7,000 pounds in 1965 but is now worth at least 875,000 pounds, then hired a lawyer to put their claims to the Strasbourg court.

But, by the narrowest of verdicts, the court yesterday sided with the British Government - which effectively argued it was legally entitled to discriminate against siblings. Britain's representative in the court, Nicolas Bratza, was one of four judges who voted against the spinsters. Their judgement said they agreed with the Government there is no comparison between siblings and gays, so they are not entitled to the same rights. The case of Britain was that siblings had not chosen to enter into any legally-binding agreement, it was simply as a result of birth. This meant they are not entitled to the same protection.

One of the three judges who backed the spinsters said that while the ruling was legal, it was unfair. Family campaigners said the court's ruling gave the legal stamp of approval to discrimination in favour of gay couples. Jill Kirby, of the Centre for Policy Studies, said the ruling was also a blow to children who live with elderly parents, in order to care for them. They also face picking up a huge inheritance tax bill when the parent dies. She added: "In a case like this, where there lives have been intertwined for many years, it seems very unfair they are not afforded the same protection as a couple who have registered a civil partnership but whose lives have not been shared to anything like the same extent. "Once the decision was taken to extend rights beyond those who are married, it is only reasonable it should be offered to couples in situations like this". She added relatives who choose to live together were now "out in the cold", as all other sections of society had the opportunity to gain protection from inheritance tax. Co-habiting couples, who are currently unprotected, at least have the option of getting married.

Joyce and Sybil worked as land girls on the farm during the war but never married, caring for their parents and two aunts until they died. They moved to nearby Pangbourne in 1948, but moved back to the farm when their father Frank died in 1965. They then built their home on part of the land, where they have since lived. They live on the income from leasing out the farm. With their estate now valued at least 875,000, each sister has made a will leaving all her property to the other. If one sister dies, the inheritance tax payable would be worked out by taking the value of half the estate, subtracting the current tax-free threshold of 285,000, and calculating 40 per cent of the remainder in this case resulting in a bill of 61,000. They say the surviving sister would not be able to pay the bill, and would be forced to sell.

Author Patricia Morgan, an expert on the family, also criticised the verdict. She said: "I do not see any reason why one type of relationship should qualify, and another should not. It is direct discrimination. "Part of the reason is no doubt financial. The Government does not want to lose the money." Anastasia de Waal of the Civitas civic values study group said siblings may have missed out because they had not vocally demanded new rights. The gay lobby was vociferous in demanding equality with marriage, in order to give greater stability to its relationships. Under current laws, 40 per cent tax must be paid on inherited property above a 285,000 threshold. In the 2007-08 tax year, the threshold will rise to 300,000.


Banned for a George Bush T-shirt

Leftists don't like it when their "must not offend anybody" gospel is applied to them

An Australian was barred from a London-Melbourne flight unless he removed a T-shirt depicting George Bush as the world's number one terrorist. Allen Jasson was also prevented from catching a connecting flight within Australia later the same day unless he removed the offending T-shirt.

Mr Jasson says Qantas and Virgin Blue were engaging in censorship but the airlines say the T-shirt was a security issue and could affect the sensitivities of other passengers. "The woman at the security check-in (at Heathrow) just said to me, 'You are not wearing that'," Mr Jasson, 55, said yesterday.

Mr Jasson, who lives in London and was flying to Australia to visit family on December 2, said he was first told he would need to turn the T-shirt inside-out before he would be allowed to board the Qantas flight. "I told her I had the right to express my opinion," he said. "She called other security and other people got involved. Ultimately, they said it was a security issue . . . in light of the present situation." After a prolonged argument about freedom of speech and expression, Mr Jasson said a Qantas gate manager said he could not fly at all unless he wore another T-shirt. Mr Jasson said his clothing had already been checked in and he was forced to buy a new T-shirt - this time with London Underground written on it - coincidentally the site of a terrorist attack last year. "I felt I had made my point and caved in," Mr Jasson said.

But after arriving in Australia, Mr Jasson said he put his Bush T-shirt back on and was again banned from boarding a connecting flight - this time a Virgin Blue plane from Adelaide to Melbourne. "It was argued other passengers could be offended," Mr Jasson said. "I said it was most offensive that I would be prevented from expressing my political views." Mr Jasson said the T-shirt often sparked comment from people in the street.

A Virgin Blue spokeswoman said the airline had a policy to ban offensive clothing and bare feet. "Most people use common sense and don't go out of their way to offend people," she said


The Australian Left moves Right on Immigration

Only days after Tony Blair did much the same in Britain

Learning English and getting a job will be the cornerstones of Labor's new approach to multiculturalism, which will emphasise integrating into Australian society over celebrating cultural diversity. Settlement services more tailored to new arrivals' needs, greater recognition of overseas skills and strategies to ensure skilled workers aren't forced into unskilled jobs are among the ideas being considered by the new Labor leadership.

The latest plan is another sign that new Opposition Leader Kevin Rudd is methodically dealing with potential political wedges that John Howard would have planned for him on issues of race or on Australia continuing to have troops in Iraq. Mr Rudd yesterday confirmed a more flexible version of Labor's commitment to withdraw troops from the troubled nation, laying out a timetable of up to six months if Labor wins the election due late next year.

In a speech to the Fabian Society in Melbourne last night, Labor's immigration, integration and citizenship spokesman, Tony Burke, said more needed to be done to make multiculturalism work. "The recognition we're making is that simply promoting diversity on its own isn't enough," Mr Burke said. The Government had "dropped the ball on integration", which was vital to the success of a multicultural society, he said. "The Government has been talking about integration as though integration and multiculturalism are mutually exclusive," Mr Burke said. "This is wrong. Integration is the way to make a multicultural society work. "There is an alternative to integration - and it's called disintegration."

The strategy comes as the Prime Minister pushes for stricter rules on citizenship and follows revelations in The Australian last month of government plans to scrap the use of the term "multiculturalism".

Mr Burke, whose southwestern Sydney seat of Watson includes the suburbs of Kingsgrove and Lakemba, said multiculturalism as a policy had changed significantly since its introduction. "A multicultural Australia has never been about people living in cocoons," he said. "It's about taking the benefits of the richness of people's diverse backgrounds and building a stronger community."

Mr Rudd said he supported the idea of putting integration and citizenship under the responsibility of the immigration portfolio and thought people should become citizens a reasonable time after coming to Australia. The move came after Mr Burke, Labor's immigration spokesman under Kim Beazley, suggested to Mr Rudd when he became leader last week that the title "integration" be added to the portfolio. "The shadow immigration minister, Tony Burke, is now the shadow minister for immigration, integration and citizenship, that is our position," Mr Rudd said in Melbourne.

Mr Rudd defended Labor's policy on multiculturalism, saying he did not believe that integration and having pride in your heritage were contradictory. "We also have a shadow minister for multiculturalism, we don't see these things as contradictions of one another," he said. "When I look at this great City of Melbourne what I find exciting about the city is its multicultural mix, its wonderful contribution from cultures from all over the world," Mr Rudd said in the suburb of Box Hill against a backdrop of Asian restaurants. "Mr Howard might see these things in absolute contradiction of one another, I do not."

The Labor leadership is wary of having the ALP divided over its policy of protecting people's right to maintain their national heritage and customs, while the Coalition is demanding more of immigrants on the question of citizenship and accepting Australian values. Although Mr Rudd on Tuesday formally dumped Mr Beazley's proposal for all visitors to sign off on Australian values before entering the country, he has not rejected the Government's plans for a tougher citizenship test demanding more knowledge of Australia and its history. In promoting integration as a pillar of the immigration portfolio, Labor has signalled that it supports the idea that migrants should expect to adopt citizenship and be involved in society.

Mr Burke also argued the Government was creating barriers to integration through its temporary protection visa scheme, which gives some asylum-seekers a three-year visa with an option to reapply. He has pledged he will try to scrap the scheme from Labor policy at next April's national conference. "The Government's use of consecutive temporary protection visas has sent a message to the visa-holders to not integrate," he said. "Labor believes it's better for Australia to make a decision ... if someone's leaving, they should get on a plane; if they're staying they should get on with a new life as part of the Australian community." Settlement programs also needed to be reviewed because they were run on a "one-size-fits-all model", which failed to address many needs of new arrivals


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