Thursday, 24 January 2013

Shutting the freezer door... after the horse-burger has bolted

...with apologies to the Bisto kids

The horse-burger scandal has livened up a dull, depressing and freezing week, revealing the deep vein of satirical humour practised by the twitterati.  Samples:

  •  I prefer my Lidl pony to Tesco burgers
  • Waitrose burgers: guaranteed Shergar free
  • Waiter: what would you like on your burger sir? Diner: £5 each way.
Well boom boom.

Writing as someone who lacks the traditional British sentimentality about animals, and particularly those regarded as pets, I can’t see any difference in principle between eating different types of quadruped, with two provisos. A) You’re told honestly what it is you’re eating, and b) you can be reasonably sure it’s free of superfluous chemicals and disease.  Neither of which condition seems to have been met in the recent cases.

Two possible culprits have emerged.  First, the government’s passion for deregulation, no-one was surprised to learn, has led to changes in FSA inspection regimes while cuts to local authority budgets have led to a substantial reduction in the number of trading standards officers. The funding for the FSA meat inspection regimes is being cut by £12m over four years.

Both government and the Food Standard Agency (FSA – or should that be SFA) have stressed that there was no danger to public health in the horse-burgers.  However, one food analyst challenged the claim, on the grounds that, in the absence of tests no-one can know if the horses were diseased or had been treated with veterinary medicines potentially harmful to humans.  And for the future, according to a leaflet issued by the FSA, "food business operators [are to] be given greater responsibility" for monitoring the health standards of food products.

But the second culprit, it has been argued, is the supermarkets. (Let's talk horse sense about food | Jay Rayner | Comment is free | The Observer).  Rayner points out that while supermarket bosses talk up their concerns for safety, in an industry dominated by brutal price competition, cost is everything.  Their dominant position enables the supermarkets to force cost-cutting deals on their suppliers – which in turn, encourages (some would say forces) those suppliers to cut corners.  And with beef prices rising at an alarming rate (current beef wholesale prices are around £3.80 a kilo compared with £1.85 for horsemeat), it’s not hard to see why substituting the one for the other might appeal to suppliers.

Governments’ ability to intervene is limited, even supposing they were minded to: any intervention which led to further increases in the price of food would be seen as electoral suicide.  And as Rayner points out, it’s easy for the relatively affluent middle classes praise the virtues of shopping locally where provenance is clear and trustworthy: no-one eats from the economy range by choice.   If identifying the problem is fairly simple, proposing a practical – and achievable – solution is less so.  It’s an issue to which we’ll return – frequently – on this site.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

We’re all equal in the sight of God – and under the law?

I've always said that a 'bishopric' is an occupational qualification, dear boy, not just the office name.

A couple of weeks ago the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) issued four verdicts (widely described as ‘landmark’), all relating to cases of alleged religious discrimination.  In all four cases English courts had dismissed claims, which had ended up as appeals at ECHR.  Two of the appeals (one of which was upheld) related to appellants’ rights to wear crucifixes while at work.  One appellant, a check-in worker with British Airways, won her case, as the company’s defence for its regulation – which had in any case been withdrawn some years ago – was that the religious symbol interfered with its corporate image.  The other appellant, a nurse, lost her case, as the employer argued successfully that the cross, worn outside the uniform, compromised health and safety.

The other two cases seem to me more fundamental as they touch on more basic issues, to do with how our right to exercise our freedoms interferes with others’ rights to exercise theirs.  In both cases, one involving a local authority registrar, the other a sex therapist, the appellant had argued that their employers’ insistence that they dealt with gay people infringed their religious beliefs. Both were dismissed, in effect, for their breach of their employers’ equalities policies.  The court was saying that the right of gay people to receive equal treatment outweighed an individual’s right to follow their conscience, as shaped by their religious beliefs.

My political philosophy courses (admittedly many years ago) led me to accept, as fundamental requirements of a ‘free’ and civilised society, two propositions:
  • That any freedom of mine must be restricted the moment its exercise materially interferes with anyone else’s, and…
  • …the law must apply equally to all – no-one is above the law.
Broadly speaking these ECHR judgements reinforce these principles.  So where does that leave the Church of England and its continued refusal to contemplate female bishops (admittedly only because of the views of a handful of dinosaurs among the lay members of Synod)?  At present it’s legal: UK law currently allows employers to discriminate if the employment “is for the purposes of organised religion” and a particular sexual orientation is necessary in order to comply with “the doctrines of the religion” or to avoid conflict “with the strongly held religious convictions of a significant number of the religion's followers”.

In the wake of the latest judgements from ECHR it’s possible of course that the church’s position could be subject to a legal challenge.  But since the C of E is the established church, it’s not just a matter of legality.  I see no reasons why the law of the land should not apply equally to all organisations, religious or otherwise (though I can also see the problems that might create with other faiths and denominations – maybe the world isn’t ready for Catholic priestesses or female Imams).

But the Church of England is in a special position.  As the established church it sends bishops to the Lords who are free to take part in and vote on legislation. It is surely unacceptable that an organisation that is part of the law-making process can itself operate above the law it helps to shape.  In a democracy, no citizens should be above the law.  In a democracy, people are free to believe what they wish, but they have a responsibility as citizens not to act on beliefs which fail to treat others with equal concern and respect – and that applies to the church and its female clergy.