Friday, October 20, 2006


The British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, said he backed a local council which suspended a Muslim classroom assistant for refusing to remove her veil, as part of what he described as a difficult but necessary debate about how Islam integrates into the modern world. Mr Blair said on Tuesday the niqab worn by some Muslim women was "a mark of separation and that is why it makes other people from outside of the community feel uncomfortable" - words likely to anger some religious leaders.

Asked if it was possible for a woman wearing a veil to make a full contribution to British society, Mr Blair said it was "a very difficult question … no one wants to say that people don't have the right to do it. That is to take it too far. But I think we need to confront this issue about how we integrate people properly into our society. "It's a very, very sensitive issue; all I'm saying is we need to have this debate about integration. I'm not saying anyone should be forced to do anything."

Mr Blair said he could "see the reason" why Kirklees Council had suspended Aishah Azmi, a teaching assistant at Headfield Church of England junior school in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire. Ms Azmi has taken the council to an employment tribunal. Mr Blair said he was mindful of that, though he did not go as far as the Minister for Local Government, Phil Woolas, in calling for her to be sacked. But he said he "fully" supported Kirklees. "I simply say that I back their handling of the case. I can see the reason why they came to the decision they did," Mr Blair said.

Ms Azmi's lawyer said he was considering taking an injunction against Mr Blair to stop him saying more about the case. The Prime Minister said Ms Azmi's case, along with the decision by a senior Labour MP, Jack Straw, to ask women to remove their veils in his constituency surgeries and a row over British Airways' ban on a staff member wearing a cross, were part of a broader debate which was "happening in a very haphazard way". The debate was about the degree of integration by Muslims, and about "how Islam comes to terms with and is comfortable with the modern world", he said. The debate had begun long before ministers contributed and was going on in different forms across the developed world including the Middle East. A spokesman in Mr Blair's office said later that ministers had not engineered the debate, but nor could they shy away from it.



A virtually unnoticed piece of legislation is wending its way through Parliament right now. You might think you could not take issue with something called the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill. You might think that any legislation designed to promote child safety should be supported. You might be wrong. This new Bill will insist that every single person who could conceivably come into contact with a child, whether through work or volunteering, has to be subject to continuous criminal-record vetting.

Josie Appleton, author of The Case Against Vetting, calculates that up to a third of the adult working population will be covered, from the plumber who comes to mend a school’s leaking radiator to a parent running a football team or a 16-year-old helping schoolchildren to read. It will be an offence, subject to a fine of up to 5,000 pounds, for an employer to hire someone to work with children without being vetted, except in the context of private family arrangements.

Of course, those of us with nothing to hide will have nothing to lose. Except that the vetting is almost as bureaucratically onerous as getting a new passport. There are forms to be filled in, three pieces of identity to be proferred and, in some cases, cheques to be written. You then have to wait several weeks before you are cleared.

One new headmaster last year could not enter his own school for the first couple of weeks of term because his check had not come through. Another man — a father of three and member of the Scottish Parliament — was not allowed to lead the “walking bus” to his son’s primary school because he had not been officially cleared. We grown-ups, however public-spirited, are all now assumed guilty until proved innocent.

As a result, adults are being deterred from offering to help with children. The Girl Guides and Scouts are chronically short of volunteers: the Guides have a waiting list of 50,000, the Scouts 30,000, and some parents have resorted to signing their children up at birth. These checks will reveal not just convictions, but also offences of which people were accused but not convicted. This could wreck the lives of adults who have been falsely accused. And what about, for instance, Cherie Blair, who was investigated by the police for play-slapping a 17-year-old who made rabbit ears above her head while posing for a photograph? Will she now be banned from working with children? Or the vicar who kissed a girl on her forehead during a maths class?

One of the nicer aspects of being a child used to be the random acts of kindness offered by adults outside the family: the friendly shopkeeper who ruffled your hair and gave you a sweet; the enthusiastic PE coach who gave up time after school to help with your gymnastics and was constantly — and wholly innocently — adjusting your body position to get the moves right. These adults were generous with their time and their affection. We knew who the pervs were and took pains to avoid them.

Now all adults are deemed to be perverts unless they can prove that they are not. Most will now avoid contact with other people’s children and will refrain from touching them for fear of the action being misconstrued.

So what this Bill threatens to do is to poison the relationships between generations. Just as the ultra-feminist slogan “All men are rapists” tainted the relationship between men and women for a decade, so the assumption that all adults are potential paedophiles will imbue children with fear, parents with paranoia and other adults with excessive caution.

The new law was inspired by the Soham murders, in which Ian Huntley, a school caretaker, killed two young girls. Yet he did not even work at their school; it was his partner who did. In other words, the legislation may save no new lives. But what it will do is sour the trust between millions of children and millions of innocent adults. What a great shame.


Why men are paid more

Bettina Arndt writes:

Every few years the Australian Bureau of Statistics releases data about the gender wage gap. And every time the Labor Party announces the sky is falling in. The fact that men earn more than women is presented as proof that the country is going backward under Howard. The white picket fence is rising up to capture us all.

Everyone who participates in this farce knows full well that these wage-gap statistics are meaningless. So, what if the average woman in Australia earns $300 less per week than the average man. That statistic fails to take in account the hours worked. In fact, the average Australian Joe Blow works almost twice as many hours as the average Jenny Blow, according to data HILDA, the Household Income and Labor Dynamics in Australia survey. Since he's putting in twice as many hours, I hope Joe Blow would earn far more.

Not only does he work far longer hours, he's also far more likely to take on hazardous jobs such as mining, construction, trucking, he's more likely to be willing to move overseas, or to an undesirable location on demand and has trained for more technical jobs with less people contact. In fact, the wage gap hasn't much to do with discrimination, or conservative governments trying to keep women in their place. Differences in the way men and women behave in the workplace largely determine how much they earn.

Women are more likely to balance income with a desire for safety, fulfilment, flexibility and proximity to home. These lifestyle advantages lead to more people competing for jobs and thus lower pay. Wage gaps tend to disappear when women put in the same hours and have the same experience, training and work history as men. In Australia, similarly trained men and women under 30 show similar earnings. It is only in the older age groups that wage gaps start to widen, according to Mark Woden at the Melbourne Institute.

Yet men and women still tend not to have the same training. A London School of Economics study of more than 10,000 British graduates found the men started off earning 12 per cent more than the women. The reason? Most of the women had majored in the social sciences, while many men chose engineering, maths and computing. While more than half the women said their primary interest was a socially useful job, men were twice as likely to mention salary.

Similar patterns emerge here. Graduate women in Australia, who move into traditional male professions, often start off earning more than men. For instance, the average starting salary for female geologists in Australia is $60,000 compared to $52,000 for men. When women go into potentially high-earning careers, many end up earning far less than their male colleagues because of the way they structure their working lives. Look at female doctors. To get into medicine, these women were as ambitious and hard-working as any of their male colleagues. But a few years down the track it's a different story. Current figures show a female GP works in her paid job only 63 per cent of the hours put in by a male, although clearly many face a second shift at home.

Women are making choices. Yes, these choices are constrained by their family responsibilities. That's the reason they work those shorter hours and seek the lower paid, but more flexible work closer to home. Australian women still choose to take time out when their children are young, then return to part-time work. They miss out on financial rewards but are more content. The latest HILDA survey clearly shows women working part-time are more satisfied than full-time working women. The part-timers are far happier with their work-life balance and just as satisfied with their jobs as the full-timers. In fact, more than half the women working full-time want to work fewer hours while just over a third of the part-timers want to work more.

Yes, there are still glass ceilings, pockets of discrimination, but the major reason men earn more than women is the trade-offs women choose to make. So, the next time Anne Summers bleats about wage gaps, you'll know she's trying to pull the wool over your eyes. Wage gap talk is a con job.


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