Wednesday, June 08, 2005


An intolerant evangelical fervour has gripped our political masters and state bureaucrats in the drive to impose their dogma of absolutist equality. We are living in an age where a barrage of freedom-curbing legislation is imposed on us by a New Labour political elite dominated by members of the legal profession, led by the Prime Minister and his expensively upholstered wife. Much of the legislation is swathed in warm-hearted rhetoric about extending rights and combating discrimination. But in practice there is often an air of bullying about the way these new social regulations are applied.

One individual who recently experienced this kind of ideological aggression is John Booth, who runs a small caravan site near Ipswich. Hard-working and kindly, he has won awards for his management of the site, with a string of clients returning year after year. As well as organising his business, Mr Booth is a leading figure in his local and sporting communities, serving as a parish councillor and giving up time and money to several charities. Mr Booth has accomplished all this despite being increasingly disabled. He suffers from rheumatoid arthritis and a severe hip problem, which means not only that he has great difficulty in walking but also that he has to make regular visits to hospitals for blood tests and to have his knee aspirated.

Yet Mr Booth's serious disability has not prevented him from falling foul of the Disability Rights Commission (DRC), which was set up in 1999 to ensure that a flood of new rules on discrimination was rigorously applied. With a budget of £17 million and a team of lawyers, the DRC, in effect, now acts as a committee of public safety to bear down on any business that is felt not to have met its exacting requirements.

Mr Booth came to the DRC's attention as a result of a dispute with Gerald and Doris Hopkins, from Stowmarket, Suffolk, who, the DRC said, were the victims of discrimination. Both are in wheelchairs. Mr Hopkins, 58, a former forklift truck operator, has a kidney complaint and suffers from osteoporosis. Mrs Hopkins, 57, has multiple sclerosis and arthritis. They say that they first booked into Mr Booth's caravan site in the summer of 2003, but had to cancel because of health problems. Then, in March 2004, they tried to book again for a two-week visit in April, but they claim that this time they were not met with the same courtesy.

In their account, they were told that there were no suitable pitches on the site for them in April, and that it would be better to take a booking in June. Feeling certain that they had been treated unfairly, they arranged for their son (who has no disability) to ring Mr Booth's site and make a booking. They say he was given one without difficulty and that their request for an explanation of their treatment went unanswered for between two and three weeks.

Mr Booth fiercely denies that he acted in a discriminatory manner. He cites a number of reasons for the reluctance to give a booking to the couple in April: the fact that the ground was damp and he was concerned about wheelchair access on the heavy, muddy turf; the limited number of pitches because the grass on the site was being re-sown in April; the sheer size of the tent that the couple proposed to bring - as Mr Booth points out, he runs a caravan site, not a camp site, and he generally accepts only small tents connected to camper vans, though he was prepared to make an exception for the couple provided they came in a less awkward month than April. And, as he says, if he were guilty of discrimination, why would he have agreed to give them a booking at all, whether in August 2003 or June 2004?

None of this would wash with the DRC, which wrote to Mr Booth warning him that, following a complaint from the couple, he would be taken to court unless he made a formal apology and gave them £2,000 in compensation for "the injury to their feelings they have suffered caused by your discriminatory behaviour''. Mr Booth was understandably outraged by this monetary demand, given that the actual cost for a two-week stay at the site is only £120. The DRC had, therefore, ordered him to pay the couple more than 15 times the sum that he would have received from their booking.

But the part of the DRC's letter which Mr Booth found most offensive was that, to prevent court proceedings, he was ordered to give "an undertaking to attend disability awareness training and to provide evidence to the DRC that this had been undertaken''.

As a disabled man himself, Mr Booth found the mixture of threats, indoctrination and extortion intolerable. "It was nothing more than emotional and financial blackmail. I felt so robbed, so bullied,'' he said. But, on the advice of his solicitor, he saw that he had no alternative but to submit to the DRC's demands. To have gone to court would have involved him in even higher costs with no guarantee of winning.

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A member of Canada's minority Liberal government unexpectedly quit the party on Monday over plans to legalize gay marriage, and said he would be willing to bring the government down if necessary. The balance of power is so finely divided in Parliament that the single vote of Pat O'Brien, who will now sit as an independent, could tip the country into an early election if the government loses a confidence vote. "I will use every opportunity I have to use -- bar none -- in order to defeat this legislation," O'Brien told a news conference shortly after informing Prime Minister Paul Martin he was leaving the party. His departure spells more bad news for Martin, who survived a tense confidence motion last month by just a single vote.

The opposition Conservative Party and the separatist Bloc Quebecois pressed hard in May to force a new election as the government's popularity eroded under allegations of kickbacks to the Liberal Party in return for rich government advertising contracts in Quebec. But the Conservatives once again trail the Liberals in many polls, and it is not clear they want an election at this time. "It's an interesting development. We'll take a look at it," Conservative spokesman Geoff Norquay said. "Let's take the urgency out of this."

O'Brien had mused out loud in April that he might leave the Liberals, but he changed his mind after Martin promised Parliament would have more time to study the bill that would legalize gay marriage across the country. It is legal in seven of the 10 provinces. An outspoken critic of the legislation, O'Brien now says the prime minister is trying to rush through consultations. "I feel he is making an enormous mistake to rush this legislation forward.... There is no mandate for this government to change the definition of marriage," O'Brien said.

The Liberals unveiled the legislation in February, saying they had to act after provincial courts ruled that prohibiting same-sex marriages was unconstitutional. The legislation is opposed by the Conservatives and is unpopular with some three dozen Liberals. But widespread support for the law by the Bloc and the New Democrats means the bill would become law unless the government fell first.

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