Growing Parliamentary revolt over Worker Protection Bill
The FSU has been briefing supporters across both Houses of Parliament on the Worker Protection (Amendment to Equality Act 2010) Bill and it’s good to see that our efforts to flag up the threat this legislation poses to free speech and freedom of expression are starting to gain media traction.
Yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph carried a front-page piece on a growing Tory revolt over the government’s backing for the bill, while a strong editorial in that same paper urged Rishi Sunak to think again, pointing out that if the proposed legislation reaches the statute books unamended it will “cause havoc both for private-sector business and for public services, including the police and the NHS”.
This legislation – a private members’ bill – seeks to expand the legal duty set out in the Equality Act 2010 that requires employers to protect workers from harassment by other employees defined as “unwanted conduct relating to a protected characteristic” (i.e., age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex or sexual orientation) where that conduct has the purpose or effect of “creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment”.
With the government’s backing, the bill’s two Lib Dem sponsors – Wera Hobhouse MP and Baroness Burt of Solihull – want to make bosses additionally liable for harassment of their employees by members of the public that they come into contact with while doing their jobs.
This requirement presents a particular challenge to employers with public-facing staff because it makes them legally liable if they fail to take what Clause 1 of the Bill as drafted describes as “all reasonable steps to prevent third-parties” from harassing their employees.
Following pressure from the FSU, the government has amended the Bill so speech that involves “an expression of opinion on a political, moral, religious or social matter” is protected. That’s better, but still not great. What about pub banter and football chants, for instance?
And as Lord Strathcarron pointed out in a terrific speech in the House of Lords last week, what will become of book launches? “Would Waterstones, for example, risk an in-store book signing by JK Rowling or Helen Joyce on the off-chance that one of the author’s fans might be wearing a T-shirt that says, ‘Woman Equals Adult Human Female’, knowing that an employee could sue for hurt feelings – real or vexatious?” he asked.
You might think a government led by Rishi Sunak would be a little more circumspect when it comes to supporting legislation that will turbo-charge the Equality Act’s ineluctable “mission creep” – he was, after all, the candidate during last year’s Conservative Party leadership election who went out of his way to describe that legislation as “a Trojan horse that has allowed every kind of woke nonsense to permeate public life”.
And yet much like the inhabitants of Troy, cheerily wheeling their ‘gift of peace’ back behind the city walls, Mr Sunak’s government appears oblivious to the threat posed by this legislation, simply waving it through the Commons without a vote on a Friday sitting when most MPs weren’t in Westminster but back in their constituencies.
According to the Sunday Telegraph, senior Tories are now warning that the free speech protections included in the amended legislation do not go far enough.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, the former Business Secretary, said establishments that “serve the public can expect to run a police state in their business”, while Sir John Hayes, the chairman of the Common Sense Group of Tory MPs, said it had “sinister implications”. Another Conservative MP, Craig Mackinlay, said he believed the change was “draconian”. FSU Advisory Council member Lord David Frost described the Bill as a “woke, socialist measure” that would “have a chilling effect on every conversation in a workplace”.
The FSU is calling on the Minister for Women and Equalities, Kemi Badenoch, to rethink the bill. With hospitality venues struggling to survive rising energy costs, soaring inflation and a rise in corporation tax, more red tape is the last thing they need. At the very least, the Government should make commencement of all the clauses other than the ones dealing with sexual harassment contingent on a proper consultation with all the sectors likely to be affected.
You can read our briefing note on the Worker Protection Bill here.
Charity Commission to investigate mosque at centre of school Quran row following FSU intervention
Jamia Masjid Swafia, the Wakefield mosque at the centre of a row about a Quran being accidentally damaged at a local secondary school, is being investigated by the charities watchdog (Times). This is a significant regulatory intervention on behalf of free speech, freedom of expression and the separation of religion from civil affairs – and it’s thanks to the FSU.
Members may recall that we wrote to West Yorkshire Police earlier this month, asking them to remove the ‘non-crime hate incidents’ that had been recorded against the names of four boys at Kettlethorpe High School in Wakefield after one of the boys, a 14-year-old who is on the autistic spectrum, brought a copy of the Quran into school and accidentally dropped it, causing minor damage. In a completely disproportionate response, the police decided to treat this episode as a ‘non-crime hate incident’ and recorded it as such. You can read that letter here.
We followed up with a letter to Helen Stephenson, the CEO of the Charity Commission, asking her to open an investigation into Jamia Masjid Swafia after video footage emerged of one of the boy’s mothers appearing there shortly after the episode, dressed in a Muslim headscarf, seemingly in an effort to protect her son, who had been receiving death threats. You can read our letter urging the Charity Commission to open an investigation into the mosque here.
Writing in the Times, Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, described this meeting as “look[ing] more like a sharia law trial, inappropriately held at a mosque instead of a neutral setting”.
It’s difficult to disagree. We’ve reviewed the footage posted on social media and it’s pretty alarming.
While the boy’s mother sat on a panel, modestly bowing her head, the Imam warned that the Muslim community wouldn’t tolerate any disrespect shown to the Quran and if necessary would defend its honour with their lives. “When it comes to the honour of the Quran we will stand and we will defend the honour of the Quran no matter what it takes,” he said. “The slightest bit of disrespect [to the Quran] is not accepted and it is not going to be tolerated at any point, in any city, in any country by any Muslim and that’s the fact of the matter.”
He continued: “The difficulty that we have in this incident is that these are not adults that have carried out this act. Had it been, for example, a teacher who had disrespected the holy Quran – had it been, let’s say, an adult that had thrown the holy Quran – then the matter would be different. We probably wouldn’t be sitting in the [mosque] right now, we’d probably be standing outside that school and voicing our concerns without any doubt whatsoever.”
As we pointed out in our letter to the Charity Commission, the Jamia Masjid Swafia mosque is a registered charity and we think these remarks constitute a breach of one of the mosque’s charitable objects, namely, “promoting good community relations and cohesion between Muslims and non-Muslims”.
Responding to our letter, a Charity Commission spokeswoman confirmed to the Times that the regulator has “opened a regulatory compliance case to assess concerns raised with us about Jamia Masjid Swafia”. She added: “We are carefully considering the issues raised to determine our next steps.”
New FSU report reveals police failing to teach officers about free speech
The FSU’s latest research briefing on the free speech crisis in British policing was published earlier this month, and we’re delighted to report that it has since gained significant media traction (e.g., Christian Institute, Epoch Times, Spiked, Sunday Times, Times).
Authored by our Research Officer, Carrie Clark, the briefing reveals that a majority of police forces provide next to no training to officers on freedom of speech while a huge amount of time is spent on Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) training. Partly as a result, the police have neglected the protection for freedom of expression in Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, as well as common law free speech protections, when investigating and recording ‘non-crime hate incidents’. (You can watch a clip of me discussing the findings on GB News here.)
The FSU submitted Freedom of Information (FoI) requests to all 41 English and Welsh police forces, excluding the British Transport Police, Civil Nuclear Constabulary and Ministry of Defence Police. Nine forces failed to respond within the statutory deadline or notified us that their response was indefinitely delayed, 10 forces provided partial information, and 22 answered in full.
Based on these responses, Carrie calculated that 78% of the police forces who responded to our requests are providing no training at all on Article 10, or providing no more than one line on it. The remainder did not answer the question.
By contrast, 32 forces answered a question asking for details of the training carried out in relation to EDI. One force claimed to hold no information on the subject and a further four stated that EDI was so highly integrated into every aspect of their training that it would exceed the cost limit of the Freedom of Information Act to provide the necessary information. Fourteen forces described EDI training as a “golden thread” running through every part of their training or reported that EDI was integral to standard training.
This means that for 56% of the police forces we surveyed, EDI is inextricably embedded in their training.
If Suella Braverman is serious about wanting to rein in the police’s nasty habit of recording NCHIs against anyone accused of saying something politically incorrect, it is essential that England and Wales’s 41 police forces receive proper free speech training.
You can read the FSU’s report here.
New FSU event on the return of blasphemy laws – book your tickets here!
The FSU is delighted to announce a new event, ‘Blasphemy law by the back door?’ Speakers include Director of Common Sense Society UK Emma Webb, researcher and author Dr Rakib Ehsan, Steven Evans of the National Secular Society, and Ben Jones, our Deputy Case Director.
Although the offence of blasphemy was abolished in England and Wales in 2008, the disturbing case of the Batley Grammar School teacher – still in hiding two years after showing a picture of Mohammed to an RE class – and the recent punishment of four schoolboys in Wakefield for lightly scuffing a copy of the Quran suggests that de facto blasphemy laws are still being enforced in the UK, just not on behalf of Christians.
In this climate, are we seeing the return of blasphemy laws by the back door? How might we strike a balance between tolerance for diverse beliefs and the right to ridicule or criticise religion? And can we defend the right to criticise Islam, when our institutions routinely censure dissent from woke liturgy?
Join us in-person – or online if you’re an FSU member – on Wednesday 10th May from 7:30pm as our impressive panel addresses one of the most pressing threats to freedom of speech in western, liberal democracies.
Full details and a link to purchase in-person tickets can be found on our Events page. If you can’t get to London, then join us via Zoom – it’s free of charge for FSU members, so please check back through your recent emails from our Events team for the link to register. (If you’re receiving this newsletter as a supporter, but haven’t yet joined, you can join the FSU for as little as £2.49 a month here.)
The FSU launches its new podcast ‘That’s Debatable!’
We were very excited to launch our new podcast last month, with weekly dispatches from the frontline of the free speech wars. That’s Debatable! is co-hosted by Tom Harris and Ben Jones, two members of the FSU’s staff. Ben’s day job as Deputy Case Management Director is to help our members who get into trouble for speaking their minds, and Tom, our Data Director, sees the facts and figures that prove how big the free speech crisis is.
The team will discuss the free speech issues of the week, answer your questions, and let you know what we’re doing to protect people’s speech rights in the workplace and the public sphere. The podcast comes out each Tuesday, and is available on all the major podcasting platforms.
Click here to listen to the podcast – and don’t forget to search for That’s Debatable! on your favourite podcasting app and hit ‘subscribe’ so you don’t miss next week’s episode.
Online Speakeasy with Simon Fanshawe – register for tickets here!
On Tuesday 18th April, Toby Young will be joined in conversation at an exclusive, members only Online Speakeasy with writer and broadcaster Simon Fanshawe OBE. Simon has had a career that stretches from being an award-winning comic (Perrier Award 1989) to a Sunday Times feature writer, as well as a broadcaster and columnist. He is also the author of the best-selling book The Power of Difference, which has just been awarded Management Book of the Year 2022. Further details about the event are available here. If you’re an FSU member, Zoom registration is free of charge, so please check back through your recent emails from our Events team for the link to register.
FSU member Vanessa Warwick in SLAPPs case – show your support here!
Meanwhile, in potential SLAPPs case news, FSU member Vanessa Warwick is facing the largest ever damages claim for defamation in the history of UK courts – £5.4million. She is being sued in the High Court by property trainer Samuel Leeds and his company. Vanessa was represented in court earlier this month by specialist defamation counsel Jonathan Price of Doughty Chambers who represented her on a low-bono basis.
“I am so immensely grateful to Jonathan, my solicitor Carmine Procaccini of Anthony Gold, Index on Censorship, and the FSU for their support during this stressful ordeal,” Vanessa told us. “I am also grateful to CrowdJustice for hosting my fund-raising campaign page, which is helping me raise the funds to continue with my defence.”
You can find out more about the case and donate to Vanessa’s CrowdJustice fundraiser here.
Dis-/misinformation Speakeasy – full video of our latest event available now!
The video of the FSU’s most recent in-person Speakeasy – ‘Disinformation, Misinformation and the Freedom to Dissent’ – is now available in full on our YouTube channel. It was a terrific event, with more or less a full house at the Art Workers’ Guild in London, and over 500 people joining us online via Zoom.
So-called disinformation and misinformation have been singled out by many governments, institutions, charities and commercial businesses as a threat to democracy, requiring widespread censorship. Is this a genuine concern, or just an excuse by the authorities to suppress dissenting points of view on issues like the lockdowns, mRNA vaccines, the war in Ukraine and climate change? And even if the threat is real and the concern genuine, how can we trust these agencies to accurately identify disinformation and misinformation?
To discuss these issues, we brought together a fantastic panel of experts, including Silkie Carlo of Big Brother Watch, writer and broadcaster Timandra Harkness, and two of the people recently identified by a British Army 77th Brigade whistleblower as having been monitored by the secretive unit for criticising the government’s pandemic response – the journalist Peter Hitchens and myself.
As the Twitter Files have made clear, the weaponisation of concepts like ‘misinformation’ and ’disinformation’ by Big Tech (and Big Government) is one of the most pernicious threats to free speech that we currently face – so if you weren’t able to join us for the live event, this video is well worth a watch. The link is here – and don’t forget to subscribe to our YouTube channel while you’re there.
Academic freedom for feminists – show your support for Laura Favaro here!
Dr Laura Favaro is a feminist sociologist who is taking her ex-employer – City University – to an Employment Tribunal for discrimination, harassment, victimisation, and whistleblowing detriment.
In September 2022, Favaro wrote an article for Times Higher Education that described the vilification and ostracism experienced by female academics who question gender identity ideology. After interviewing 50 gender studies academics about their views and experiences of the ‘gender wars’, Laura concluded that a culture of fear had taken hold across universities in England when it comes to this topic.
In her article, Dr Favaro recounts being told that “certain doors in academic may quietly close” if she proceeded with her research – which is exactly what happened. Colleagues quickly moved to denounce her research as an “attack piece on trans people” that had been “intended to cause harm”, while high-profile, well-remunerated Professors who had originally acted as participants in her study began announcing that they would be taking ‘action‘ against her, in spite of the fact that she was a precariously employed migrant.
City University subsequently received complaints alleging that Dr Favaro had been unethical during her research. As Laura points out, these complaints were baseless: City investigated and could find no ethical wrongdoing on her part. Despite this, Dr Favaro was still let go by City University. She further alleges that prior to her termination, her research project was suspended, all access to her research data was withdrawn, and she was vilified and ostracised by colleagues.
In an interview with the Sunday Times’s Hadley Freeman, Dr Favaro admitted to being “terrified” about her tribunal case, but also determined to see it through: “The time has come to speak up, because I don’t want other women to go through this. Silence will not protect us.”
You can find out more about Laura’s crowdfunder and show your support for this brave and principled early career academic by clicking here.