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.
"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