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Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Our parliamentarians should have no truck with CARE

CARE (Christian Action, Research and Education) is a Christian "charity" that is opposed to marriage equality, LGBT rights and abortion. It essentially wishes to impose its rigid orthodoxy and narrow-minded attitudes onto mainstream society, perhaps not unusually for a fundamentalist religious organisation. What does, however, distinguish CARE from similar bodies such as the Christian Institute is that it runs a parliamentary leadership programme that provides, essentially as a gift, interns to a number of MPs.

MPs currently in receipt of such a benefit from CARE (or have certainly received such in the recent past) include Alan Beith, Andrew Selous, David Borrowes, Gary Streeter, Tim Farron, Steve Webb and Paul Burstow. That is not an exhaustive list - 17 MPs in all are presently accepting interns. It is of concern that among them are Liberal Democrats who, the matter of personal faith aside, might usually be expected to support a very different line than that taken by CARE.

Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie also has interns supplied by CARE - something I have written about previously. Interestingly, when I asked Willie last week about his association with CARE he was fiercely defensive, insisting that the organisation was harmless, the interns highly capable and the scope for them influencing policy minimal. He justified his acceptance of support as an example of showing tolerance towards those in society who see the world differently.

But that is not the point. If Mr Rennie wishes to display the tolerance he speaks of, why not accept interns or any other form of assistance from a range of organisations whose views we find distasteful from the Scottish Defence League to the Pro-Life Alliance? In fact, why in the name of tolerance does Rennie not make such a public show of embracing the SNP? The essential truth is we have a Scottish party leader and a federal party president who have both, for whatever motivations, decided to ally themselves with a less than liberal organisation that is diametrically opposed to many of the values we're trying to communicate.

Rennie has a point when he states that interns can not overtly influence party policy. But the problem I have is not simply one of image, although there is little doubt that such associations do make the party look bad and can cause serious damage. What CARE can and does do is undermine a lot of the work our party is doing on equality issues: CARE's Scottish director, Gordon Macdonald (himself a former Lib Dem parliamentary candidate), has taken every opportunity to criticise the Scottish government and the Lib Dem leadership over their respective stances on marriage equality.

It's also pretty hypocritical. Only last Wednesday, Rennie was telling a group of Scottish bloggers that the Lib Dem record on LGBT rights speaks for itself. It does - we have allowed homophobic religious extremists to work for the party. That is an inescapable and unenviable part of our record.

In the current political climate, with equal marriage high on the agenda, associations with CARE are at the very least embarrassing. Labour MP David Lammy recently ended his own associations with the "charity" after discovering the truth about CARE's record on LGBT rights - including sponsoring "Sex and the City" - promoting a "therapeutic" approach towards the "sexually broken". It seems that CARE were a little less than honest with him about what they actually stood for. Also another Labour MP, Ben Bradshaw was once refused help from CARE when it discovered his sexuality - ask yourself, how Christian an action is that? And do we really want to be associated with it?

What makes this undesirable situation worse are the actions of some CARE-sponsored MPs in recent days. Conservative Andrew Selous has not only spoken out in opposition to marriage equality, he has insisted that gay people can be "cured" - telling Bedfordshire on Sunday that "“I have met people who have been homosexual who are no longer" before adding, presumably without appreciating the irony, that he is "wholly against any form of discrimination.” David Burrowes has taken a leaf out of Bill Walker's book and is attempting to take on the mantle of a Christian martyr by claiming to be receiving "threats" from equality campaigners (interestingly he turned to You Tube to make these claims, not to the police). In the meantime, that friend of the unenlightened, Ann Widdecombe, used the Daily Express to suggest that "gay cure" treatments should be provided to clients who would want them. As someone who works in mental health, I would suggest if any LGBT person feels so insecure about who they are there is various therapy and psychological support available for them to access without resorting to the cruel aversion treatment championed by religious bigots. It's quite distasteful that the likes of Selous, Widdecombe and CARE seem to perceive homosexuality as an illness - more still that people of such views are staffing the offices of our leader and president.

Phillip Dawson has started a petition calling on MPs to sever their links with CARE. I have signed it - you can sign here. In addition I think it's time we challenged our own MPs on their relationships with CARE - please consider getting in touch with them and expressing your views.

A party with the Liberal Democrats historic commitment to LGBT equality can ill afford to allow its leading personnel to be closely associated with so repugnant a group. I don't use that word lightly, but then an organisation that would describe me as a "leper" is more than out of touch.


Further reading:

CARE website
"Christian fundamentalists fighting spiritual battle in parliament", The Telegraph, 17/5/08
"Two standards better than one?", ScottishPol, 16/10/11
CARE: "a moderate compassionate group trying to make the country better", People's Republic of South Devon , 17/10/11
"Christian Activists poised to win concession on abortion after 40 years" The Independent, 28/8/11
List of MPs who have received interns from CARE

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

I believe in equal marriage and I have signed the equal marriage petition. But I’m not going to sign this petition.

I’m happy to sign something that I believe in but it’s not very liberal to sign something telling other people that what they should or shouldn’t believe in….

Andrew said...

Well, it's not about telling people what they can and can not believe in. Neither Tim Farron nor Willie Rennie nor David Lammy "believe in" the principles CARE stands for. But Lammy found out a few days ago and withdrew his association with them. That's very telling. And THAT'S the point. If some MPs really believe this kind of thing (like Andrew Selous and David Burrowes obviously do) - fine. I'll defend their right to say that 2 plus 2 equals 5, although I'm also going to openly disagree with them.

However, the issue for me is whether this is the kind of organisation our MPs (and our party) should be associated with. And I'd say no. And if Phillip's campaign has done anything to date it's been to highlight what CARE actually is and precisely what it stands for. And that has already seen one MP saying that he's not willing to be associated with this.

CARE can say what they like. I'll defend their democratic right to do it, although similarly I hope they'd respect my right to protest. And if MPs want to be sponsored by a group like this, if they understand exactly what it is they're getting themselves into and they share the beliefs of the said organisation - again, I'd defend that although I would imagine many wouldn't be too pleased.

When it's senior leaders of my party who are being supported by such people, who on the one hand give them interns and then with the other attack them personally (as CARE in Scotland has done to Willie) then it really is time to ask what, if anything, we benefit from this connection. And, ideally, to ask our MPs to consider withdrawing that association from a group that undermines us, embarassses us and sends out a message that's diametrically opposed to our principles.

If you think that's illiberal (and you're entitled to your view) would you be happy with Nick Clegg accepting some interns from the English Defence League? Because I honestly don't see the difference; liberalism and tolerance are not the same as accepting that every view is equally valid - and CARE's views are far from consistent with those of the Liberal Democrats.

investment in farmland said...

Anyone who supports the approach of CARE would be well advised to get in touch with the American presidential candidate Rick Santorum, who believes that gay marriage is a religious sin.

Phillip Dawson said...

Andrew, many thanks for featuring the petition in your excellent post.

I completely agree with your response to the anonymous poster above. I fully support freedom of speech but for me honesty of speech is part of that. My friends have told me I am too honest for politics and I know honesty and electioneering aren't necessarily the best bedfellows! However, I do think there is an onus on all of us but especially people and organisations in the public eye, including MPs and registered charities such as CARE, to be crystal clear about their aims and objectives and not hide behind nuanced phrases. The 'gay cure' conference is noticeable by its absence on the CARE website, which is one example of what I mean by that. The way in which the organisation writes its fundraising 'blurbs' for sex-education material, is another.

Rarely do we get the chance to see what MPs really think because debates and votes are so often whipped. These sorts of issues give the electorate an insight into the inner mind of those we elect to represent us, which is always fascinating (and healthy) I think!

The purpose of the petition is to call on the MPs concerned to make a public statement now they are aware of the link between the charity and its co-sponsorship of a controversial 'gay cure' event.

My view (reflected in the petition wording) is that they should not have any such links with this type of organisation - no matter how much 'good' they think it does in other areas; imagine if a humanitarian charity doing lots of good work just happened to sell arms once - is this situation that different? However, I accept that the law says that each MP is entitled to employ whoever they like and that freedom extends to interns. If they wish to continue to have this sort of relationship with CARE and organisations like it, then it is entirely a matter for their own judgement.

One of the many things I have found surprising since starting the petition was that despite the coverage on the gay cure conference at the time (2009) in the gay media as a result of the protests held outside, it seemed to have received very little national coverage. I think that speaks volumes about the invisibility of gay issues. A friend of mine said that if it had been a fundamentalist muslim charity sponsoring an event to change the colour of someone's skin, every MP in the house would have know about it!

I spoke at the Enfield LGBT History Month Event to a number of people in their thirties who, like me, came out as gay at school. I can't remember much about my experience, but their accounts were harrowing. I am particularly concerned about the links between CARE, the gay cure event and the educational material that the charity prepare and whether this is the return of Section 28 on the quiet. This isn't me being Gramsci like. I just feel it's important that school leaders and parents who are thinking of accepting this material, are aware of the fact that the organisation which prepared it also co-sponsored a 'gay cure' event.

I am not an active or experienced blogger or campaigner like Andrew, so for me the past few days since setting up the petition have been fascinating. I welcome the chance to read and respond to the views on Andrews blog and elsewhere.

Many thanks,

Phillip

Andrew said...

Phillip,

Thank you for your interesting and well-considered contribution.

I should also thank you for your work in highlighting what this organisation is about. I've known about it for some time but it's only more recently I've become aware of its more extreme beliefs. I happen to be a Christian, and I simply can't identify with very much that CARE are saying on these "moral issues". This is not a mainstream group as it pretends, but a fundamentalist evangelical lobby group with only slightly more intellectual depth than the Christian Institute.

As you say, there's a lot conspicuous by it's absense on CARE's website. I wrote them a letter asking them to clarify their position on homosexuality, and the reply I received merely told me how to apply for their leadership programme.

I think you should get involved in politics! Honesty is not a bad thing; in whatever I do, say or write I try to be honest - honest about what I believe, what i want to do and who I am. That can be tough when you're a bisexual Christian Liberal Democrat! But honesty and politics are not necessarily diametrically opposed, and obviosuly there are various different levels of political activity. You certainly seem to have the tenacity and the campaigning skills.

You're right to focus on the "gay cure" event. I'd defend anyone's right to take a line either way on the ethics of sexuality (our church is probably split in 60/40 in favour of equality) but treating homosexuality as an illness is something altogether different. That attitude is repulsive and abhorrent - and needs to be challenged.

I completely agree with your other points, especially how racial issues tend to get more coverage and column inches than homophobia. I was politicised by the Section 28 debate in Scotland, in which CARE, as well as Brian Souter, waged a vicious and nasty campaign that caused one of my young friends to commit suicide.

I often blog on LGBT issues but so do many others. Have you found Don Harrison's blog?