Law Thirty-Six

You gotta go with what works

May 14, 2017
by Jon
0 comments

But how do you stop the hamster wheel?

I know I’m not the only one who loves TED Talks, and the fact that there’s such a wealth of them available online now is fabulous. Although the problem with there being such a wealth of them available online is pretty much the same as Randall Munroe’s problem with Wikipedia.

http://xkcd.com/214

(Source: xkcd.com/214)

It would be easy to blog continuously about interesting TED Talks you’d watched, but this one was both interesting and timely.

Lots of people don’t recognise that they’re working too hard and what they’re missing things as a result. They live in blissful ignorance, or unconscious incompetence, if you want to put it in those terms. Arguably, that’s less painful than the next stage, where you know that something is wrong but you don’t actually know how to fix it.

For lots of reasons, being signposted quite innocently to this video was timely.

March 16, 2017
by Jon
0 comments

The secret to great comedy

They say the secret to great comedy is timing. The secret to management is also timing. That’s not to say that management is a joke, although if it is, I think Pulp got it right.

I’ve written previously in warm, nostalgic terms about the first company I worked for, but that’s not to say that every day working there was a delight. It was a small company trying to become a bigger company, learning that practices and procedures that worked when the organisation was just a bunch of mates trying to make a living didn’t scale indefinitely.

The HR handbook was written in Comic Sans and used lots of clipart as visual aids. That was meant to make it accessible, but it also sent a message to the managers as well as the staff about how seriously it was taken.

Dressings down that should probably have been done in a quiet room were sometimes done by email to the whole company.

For example…

The office was networked using a 10Base2 network at the time, in which computers were connected together in a chain. Each PC required its own T-connector to join it to the loop, and a break anywhere on the chain would bring down the network for the whole chain. It was notoriously unreliable, and we were having consistent problems in one part of the building.

I jokingly jumped on the email thread to suggest that this corner of the building was haunted, and was swiftly and publicly rebuked by the Technical Director. He felt there was a risk that some of our newer employees might have believed me.

A different story started at that point in a training course where the instructor says ‘This is an Excel 5 Intermediate course – is that what everyone else here is expecting? If not, raise your hand.’ One of the delegates raised her hand and said that she thought she was coming for a Microsoft Project course, and it turned out she wasn’t joking. The account manager was called, and yes, we had indeed booked this person for an MS Project course but scheduled her onto an Excel course.

I was in the office but not training that day: we used to call that ‘being on the beach’ (if you weren’t out there earning money, you were presumably on the beach relaxing.) I could teach the course, so in about 20 minutes I grabbed two computers and set them up in one of the upstairs offices for an MS Project course. I scribbled out a note and stuck it to the door to say that there was a course in progress since this room had never been used for client-facing meetings before then.

The day went well. The delegate understood that we were going the extra mile to recover from our mistake, and so there was no damage to the client relationship. We were making good progress through the material and even covered some additional topics since we had time. That should have been the story.

It wasn’t.

Part way through the morning, the MD had sent an email to the whole office asking who had put a handwritten note on the door. It should have been laser printed. It wasn’t professional to let a client see a notice like this, and whoever had done this clearly didn’t understand the way we did business. I’m not saying that I lost sleep over this, but it struck me at the time as being unfair.

Two examples did stick with me for a long time, and one of them I think about every time I think about working at this company.

Another day, another course. This one was in our London office. There had been a scheduling issue and at the very last minute, I was asked if I could teach a SQL Server 6.5 Administration course. This was a five-day Microsoft Official Curriculum ‘green binder’ course, back in the days when they came in a green binder and a black Microsoft bag. I had sat in on the course before, had copious notes from that session, taken and passed the exam, but I’d never trained the course.

It was a busy weekend of cramming. This was followed by days that started with the 7 am train from Oxford to London, teaching through the day, back in Oxford by 7 pm and then further cramming until 1 am or 2 am or until fatigue overtook me. It was a crazy lifestyle (I look back in horror at the amount of long distance driving I did on just a few hours sleep), but that was part of what made it fun and exciting.

Mid-week, I got an email from my boss asking for a piece of work to be done. It would take a few hours to put the information together, so I emailed back to say that I wasn’t going to be able to get to it before the weekend because I was doing a ‘first teach’, but I’d get to it as soon as I could. I received a somewhat terse response telling me that I couldn’t just check out of my other responsibilities because I was teaching that week.

On the training side of the organisation, the Managing Director had only recently stepped back from classroom training. All the other directors and managers still taught. And to be fair to my boss, SQL 6.5 Administration was probably no harder to deliver than teaching people how to attach a document to an email. The SQL 6.5 Programming course I attended when he was delivering it was one of my favourite weeks spent working there. It was a masterclass both in terms of technical mastery and training style, and memorable for him telling one of the delegated to ‘f*** off out of my classroom’ in response to a question without causing any offence at all.

But for me, teaching the course was extremely challenging and had to be the only thing I focussed on.

I read this email at about 11 pm during a break in my course prep, and just stopped work. I replied to explain exactly what hours I was working and pointed out that the only time I had left in my day was during the few hours’ sleep I was getting each night, suggested again that I do the work on Saturday, and tried to turn my focus back to SQL Server. That proved difficult, and my mind kept coming back to the email from my boss, and the imagined conversation I would have were he in front of me right then. Most of these imagined conversations ended up with me getting fired for insubordination.

Not only was there a lack of empathy in my manager’s response, but the timing was also wrong. If he felt the need to tell me off over the way I was prioritising my time, it probably needed to be the following week. It really shouldn’t have been in the middle of the course.

One last story on this topic. Like all the others, it’s still in my memory some twenty years after the event, but this one had a lasting impact on me.

The story begins at an IT exhibition in London – one of these big events, probably at Olympia or Earls Court or somewhere similar. I wasn’t there, but our company had a stand set up. And at some stage during the event, one of our sales team had put his laptop down on the stand, turned to talk to someone, and when he turned back, the laptop was gone.

Twenty years ago, laptops were expensive. You couldn’t buy them from the local supermarket – they were premium items and we were spending anything up to £2000 per machine. They were also notoriously hard to insure, and I don’t remember the company successfully claiming on its insurance for any of the laptops we lost.

The MD had obviously had enough of this, and from memory I think the insurance company had also had enough. He sent an email round the company telling everyone that from that point, people would be personally liable for their laptops: if they lost them, they would need to pay the company back. If anyone wasn’t prepared to do that, they didn’t have to have a laptop and should hand it back.

These were the early days of my career, and although we were paid very well for what we did, I didn’t have very much by way of savings.

I liked having a laptop, and I took it everywhere with me. I got great value out of it, and as a result, the company got great value out of me. But if I was going to be personally liable for it, in my mind I needed to do one of two things: either insure it or keep over £1000 set aside as a contingency.

But this wasn’t some game of Monopoly where one of the other players has just put hotels on the dark blue properties, this was real money that I had other plans for.  And looking into the insurance question, it seemed that I couldn’t insure the laptop myself because I didn’t own it.

It was no different in my mind to the company asking me to be jointly liable for the company credit card I carried. As much as I might have understood the reasoning, it wasn’t something I could afford.

So I made moves to give it back, or at least not to take it out of the office.

And then things started to get messy. There were conversations. Well, there were arguments. I kept explaining my point of view and pointing back to the MD’s email and the wording about ‘if you don’t like that, give it back’. But I wasn’t persuading anyone.

If you’re reading this and thinking that I was just being stubborn, not setting a good example to my colleagues, and that I should have just got on with it and made sure I didn’t lose my laptop, you’re probably not alone and you certainly weren’t alone at the time. But an article about how stubborn I can be would be far longer than this one and will have to wait for another day.

It came to a head one Friday afternoon. My boss asked for a meeting to go through some parts of my job description. We went into a meeting room towards the end of the afternoon, and inside was the HR manager and, in its little bag, the laptop. And it was clear that this meeting was going to be about something else.

When they pulled out a copy of my job description, they only looked at one paragraph, which talked about being responsible for the company’s laptops. What it meant was that I was one of the people who got to decide which trainer got which laptop, although in practice I wasn’t the one doing that. They interpreted it as meaning that I needed to have a laptop to do my job, and my contention had been that I didn’t.

There was mention that the MD had had enough of my behaviour, and the HR Manager used the sentence ‘I can’t do anything more to help you.’ It was notable partly because I hadn’t realised she’d been doing anything to help me so far, but it also signalled that they were ready to move from these kinds of discussions towards something more serious.

I had to leave the room either with the laptop in my hand or without it.

I took the laptop.

But this article is supposed to be about timing, not about all the occasions I’ve been told off at work and how unfair that was. So here’s the timing point.

I left work straight after that meeting, went home, stowed my laptop somewhere I hoped would be secure, and packed my suitcase. The following day, I got on a flight to Tokyo for a two week holiday, meeting up with a friend from University who was on the JET programme (and who is now my wife). It was a trip that I’d been looking forward to for several months.

As I drove home that day, I brooded over what I saw as the unfairness of the whole issue. I was angry about the deception in the way the meeting was called. Looking back over 20+ years, both of those things cooled with the passage of time. One thing has not.

What I really resented was that this work issue dominated my thoughts all the way from Oxford to Tokyo – an eleven-hour flight is not ideal for someone who is brooding over something. I didn’t manage to shake off thoughts about work during my two weeks in Japan and would find myself dwelling on this issue in quiet moments throughout the trip. And I was still reliving that final meeting as I flew back from Tokyo to Oxford, not entirely sure that this was the end of the matter and not convinced that I would still have a job when I came back.

Did I think I might get sacked over this? Yeah, I really did.

I understand the manager’s perspective – let’s not wait two weeks while this person is on holiday, let’s deal with it now. My view was that they got the timing completely wrong, and I resented them for that for the rest of my time with the company.

That day, driving home from the office, was the first day I contemplated leaving what seemed to be a dream job and working for one of our competitors. I dusted off my CV as soon as I got back and had a couple of interviews, although I didn’t get anywhere with them. In the end, after a promotion, I decided to stay a while longer before the news that the business owners were trying to sell the training arm of the company scared me into leaving and setting up on my own. But the idea that I wouldn’t retire from this job started on that day.

I kept that laptop more or less until I left the company. As we bought newer, faster laptops, I allocated them to others in the team, slowly edging down the league table of laptop users until I had one of the slowest, least expensive machines in our inventory. If it was an act of defiance, it went completely unnoticed by the company and therefore failed. I prefer to think of it as an attempt to manage my financial exposure. Others will just see it as stubbornness, and they may well be right.

I never did lose the laptop, and although others did lose machines over the years, I don’t think anyone was ever made to reimburse the company for it. As Leo McGarry would ask, what prize did they get for the trouble caused?

Timing is everything in management, just as it is in comedy. But the risk attached to getting your timing wrong is not just a bunch of people not smiling.

April 21, 2016
by Jon
0 comments

A balance of inconvenience

I utterly do not care what PJS, AB, and CD got up to, even if it did involve olive oil. I do not care who PJS is married to. If I had passed a newspaper with the real names of these people on the front page, discussing in full tabloid frenzy what they had been up to, I wouldn’t have slowed down long enough to read it.

But for the fact that PJS sought an injunction to stop the publication of this story, I wouldn’t know as much about it as I do, including the identity of PJS and the person he is married to. In fact, when I did go looking for them, the names of the people involved we extremely easy to find: page 1 results on Google based on a few simple keywords about the case.

This is what is known as the ‘Streisand Effect‘, and when you Google ‘Streisand Effect’, the first thing you see is a picture of her house.

PJS’s injunction is based on a right to privacy and the protection of confidential information. New Group Newspapers, defending the action, claim freedom of the press and public interest in the story. The whole thing ended up before the Supreme Court today and was a sufficiently complicated issue that they’ve reserved judgement until an as-yet-undisclosed later date.

The question that is vexing them is whether the substantial coverage outside of England and Wales of the private and confidential information PJS seeks to hide means that it no longer makes sense to stop people inside England and Wales from publishing these details.
In other words, the horse has bolted – we may as well stop yelling at people to shut the stable door.

Due to Reasons, the jurisdiction of the court PJS has brought the action in extends only to England and Wales. Scotland, with its own legal system, is beyond the reach of the courts and so a newspaper there published the full story in its print edition (but not on its website).

If this was a law exam, we could now debate the details of whether my naming the people involved, or linking to or hinting about places where the information could be found, would be a breach of the injunction. This website is hosted on a server in the US. Does it matter whether, when I click “Publish”, I’m sat at my PC in England or sat in a hotel in Scotland? Discuss. 10 marks.

Legal rights mean nothing without the ability to enforce them in a practical, realistic way. Where I am at the moment I click Publish is less important than whether there’s anything of value to me within the English courts’ jurisdiction – like the web server, my house, my bank accounts, or me. Today, a legal right not to have something made publically known is easily defeated by the fact that the Internet exists. The only way that information is going to stay private is if it’s so boring that no one can be bothered to publish and re-publish it online.

In this case, PJS sought his injunction in late January, and should probably consider the fact that it’s late April and the news still hasn’t been published in England as a win.

Just getting the injunction wasn’t enough, though. PJS has also instructed lawyers to help enforce the injunction, searching for publications naming PJS and sending them letters asking them not to. Well, not really asking.

Some of those receiving such a letter have responded to point out that they’re not in England or Wales, they do not operate in England or Wales, and have no assets in England or Wales, so they’re going to ignore the letter and carry on doing what they were doing in the first place.
So the law is an ass, even the Daily Mail says so

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…but this issue of laws without realistic enforcement is hardly new. As soon as you look at employee rights in any detail, you realise how weak they are because of the inequality of power and resources between the two sides. The wronged employee’s access is justice is fettered by whether they can afford financially to enforce their rights, whether those legal costs are in proportion to the wrong they’ve suffered, whether they can afford to risk losing the case, and perception issues around whether someone who took their former employer to court is a troublemaker best avoided.

And here’s another hypothetical example. Let’s say you come home one day and your neighbour has parked his car on your drive. What are you going to do? You call the police, and they tell you that it’s not a criminal matter. You call the council, and they tell you that since the car is on private land (yours), it’s nothing to do with them.

Can you have the car towed away? Opinions differ, but even if you decide that you can, and even if you manage to do so without damaging the car, you’re probably the one who’s going to end up paying the towing fee. And, of course, you have to start the whole thing again the following day when they park their car on your drive again.

So what is the law’s solution? Your neighbour has committed a civil trespass and you need to sue them through the civil courts. You engage a lawyer, you have letters written threatening legal action, and finally you turn up in court, make your case, and hopefully come away with an injunction telling your neighbour not to park in your drive or near your drive. And when they continue so to do, you go back to court to have the injunction enforced.

How much has that just cost you? How long has it taken?

Or, if it’s a car that they actually want back and you’ve got gates at the end of the drive, you lock the gates. If you don’t have gates, a big bag of gravel will also work.

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Yes, that’s actionable, but it’s not a crime, and it’s nothing to do with the council, and what you’re really doing is raising the stakes to a point where your neighbour decides it’s less hassle to park somewhere else than to deal with you.

And that’s what it all comes down to – a balance of inconvenience. If you want a life of crime as a burglar, go right ahead. You’re going to get arrested a few times, and at some stage, the cost and hassle of being locked up in jail will outweigh the benefits.

The entertainment industry’s battle against copyright infringers and illegal torrent sites is on two fronts: an endless game of whack-a-mole as publishers issue DMCA takedown notices or force ISPs to block torrent search engines on one side; Netflix, Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal and all the other legal pay models for streaming and downloading content on the other. The effect is to make illegal downloading harder than legal purchasing for the average person on the street. Software activation technology (that ties an installation of, say, Windows to a specific PC) isn’t perfect – you can get around it – but for the average person it’s hard enough that just paying Microsoft the money is easier.

Unfortunately for PJS, he is on the losing side of this battle. The more time his lawyers spend on enforcing the injunction within England and Wales, the more attention the matter attracts internationally. PJS has already shown that he has deep pockets – taking a case to the Supreme Court and instructing lawyers to send letters to anyone publishing his name is a time-consuming business.
But he is never going to make it more trouble than it’s worth for News Group. For them, it’s not just about how many papers they’ll sell if/when they publish his story: they’re fighting against the concept of the celebrity injunction. They’re fighting to make sure that they can publish the next story and the one after that.

At some stage, PJS is going to realise that he’s wasting his money. Money that he could be spending on more olive oil, if that’s his thing.

November 4, 2015
by Jon
0 comments

I’ve decided we should do away with time zones

…because this describes every day of my working life.

And let’s not even think about the fact that twice a year, we have to send out an email to the company to explain that because the US and UK change their clocks on different weekends, there will be one to three weeks during which recurring meetings will have moved an hour forwards or backwards (depending on who set up the Outlook appointment).

Don’t even get me started on Darwin.

May 20, 2015
by Jon
0 comments

Oh, Coleen

Apparently, there’s a TV panel show called Loose Women on ITV. I’ve not watched it but from what I can make out it features four women talking about stuff while cameras are pointed at them.

Coleen-Nolan

Yesterday, they had a segment on the Ashers ‘Gay Cake’ ruling, during which one of the presenters, Coleen Nolan, said the following:

At the end of the day, if you went in there and two days later they said, ‘We don’t want to make your cakes because of our beliefs’, you’d just never go back to that shop and you’d probably say to all your gay friends, ‘Don’t go there, they’re anti-gay’, and boycott it.

What about if somebody walked in and said I want a cake and I want the whole Islamic State on it and how I support it and how I support them killing our people. Because it’s a business, do they have to make it? And if they turn around and say they’re not making it, we’d all applaud it.

Let’s take the first paragraph – which isn’t the one that got Coleen into trouble. What Coleen seems to be saying is that gay people who are discriminated against should just accept that there are certain doors that are not open to them – like the door to the local bakery. It’s difficult to imagine that she would say the same thing if her local branch of Greggs said to her that they wouldn’t serve her because she was female, or if they told fellow panellist Jamelia that she couldn’t buy a cake from them because of the colour of her skin.

That said, some of the commentary around the Ashers case from people who disagree with the bakery’s stance has asked whether this was really the right battleground on which to fight. Let’s give Coleen the benefit of the doubt and say that this was the point that she was trying to make.

Then there’s the second paragraph. Oh dear. This is the one which seems to say that being in favour of same sex marriage is on the same level as being in favour of a group of people who go round killing others. This really wasn’t a comparison that was going to do her any favours.

But now that she’s opened that door, we have to ask — could a supporter of Islamic State be said to be a member of a religion or to hold a belief that would be protected under s45 of The Equality Act 2006? Arguably, yes they could. It’s a faith-based movement and although the beliefs of Islamic State aren’t what the rest of the world would view as the true beliefs of Islam, that doesn’t stop them from being capable of protection under the Equality Act.

Meanwhile, viewers are apparently up in arms and calling for Coleen to be sacked, which seems a bit much. There should be room for debate on these issues without people losing their jobs, and I think the gay rights movement is robust enough to survive Coleen’s comments.

May 19, 2015
by Jon
1 Comment

A man went into a bakery and ordered a cake. You’ll never believe what happened next

On 9 May last year, a man walked into a shop and ordered a cake he wanted made for an event. His order was accepted, he paid a deposit and left the shop. Three days later, one of the directors of the bakery called the man to say that they’d changed their minds and wouldn’t be able to fulfil the order. They offered a full refund of the deposit. The man went on to have his cake made elsewhere.

On 26 March, the matter reached the High Court in Belfast. That seems a little hard to believe, so let’s fill in the rest of the details.

When Gareth Lee ordered his cake, he had a specific design in mind: a picture of Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street with the message ‘Support Gay Marriage’ across the top and the logo of QueerSpace, a pro-LBGT voluntary organisation based in Belfast.

The bakers, Ashers Bakery Company Ltd, is owned by Christians Colin and Karen McArthur, members of the Dunseverick Baptist Church. The name of the company comes from one of the tribes of Israel in the Bible. When Mrs McArthur called Mr Lee to tell him that they were cancelling the order, it was because a cake promoting gay marriage went against their religious beliefs. Mr Lee complained to the Equality Commission of Northern Ireland (ECNI). They in turn sent a letter to Ashers on 26 June stating that the company had acted unlawfully, contrary to Regulation 5 of the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006, which (to quote the ECNI’s letter) “prohibits discrimination in the provision of goods facilities and services to a person seeking or obtaining to use [them] on the grounds of sexual orientation.”

The ECNI asked Ashers to admit they’d made a mistake and to give an assurance that this would not happen again. The directors of Ashers stuck to their conscience and declined. Letters were exchanged back and forth between solicitors, with The Christian Institute and its legal defence fund coming to the aid of Ashers and allowing them to take legal advice. Ultimately, the two parties could not come to a compromise and the matter ended up in Belfast County Court. The trial lasted three days and Judge Isobel Brownlie handed down her verdict today: Ashers had unlawfully discriminated against Mr Lee.

The McArthurs found themselves in the middle of a fight they probably didn’t see coming. Their religious beliefs are sincerely held. They have presented Ashers as being a Christian business, although this was challenged during the trial and the explanation of where the company’s name comes from was not added to the site until after the ECNI’s first letter. Mr Lee tends to be described in the press as an ‘activist’, which may be a loaded word, but he’s certainly been involved with QueerSpace for a number of years and campaigns on their behalf. Perhaps he was as ignorant as me of the sons of Jacob and didn’t know that the owners of the business had a Christian background. Perhaps he knew exactly what he was doing when he walked through the door.

What is interesting is how the parties have behaved in public since this turned into a court battle. Mr Lee has disappeared into the background. He does not appear to have given interviews, and after the outcome of the case today, his lawyer spoke for him. The McArthur family have taken to the press, very successfully raising the profile of the case and pointing out the problems that it presented to people whose faith tells them to act one way when the law requires something else.

There were several nuances in the legal arguments involved that kept the barristers tied up. For example:

  • Is this actually discrimination based on sexual orientation? Ashers say that they would have turned away the cake order regardless of whether the person placing the order was gay or straight.
  • Gay marriage is not legal in Northern Ireland, so this cake is promoting something illegal.

As is the case in our legal system, the judge’s ruling had to be founded on answers to these legal issues. Judge Brownlie decided that Ashers “must have known or had the perception that the plaintiff was gay” and that “they must have known that the plaintiff supported gay marriage or associated with others who supported gay marriage.” While the second statement is probably irrelevant, the first statement – that Ashers must have known or perceived that Mr Lee is gay – is required for the discrimination to be unlawful. On the wording of the Regulations, it is not unlawful to discriminate against a person who believes that same-sex marriage is wrong, only to discriminate against a person on the basis of their sexual orientation (or perceived orientation).

There have been calls since this case came to light to add a ‘conscience clause’ to the legislation to prevent cases like this from having to come to court. The DUP have been arguing in favour of this, as has UKIP, with Sinn Fein among those opposed. Colin Hart, Director for the Christian Institute has said that there should be “reasonable accommodation to protect those, who for religious or philosophical reasons, believe that marriage is the lifelong union of one man and one woman.”

And there is the larger question: should the fact that you have a religious or philosophical belief that says same sex relationships are wrong allow you to discriminate against those groups; or, to turn it around, do we force people with these beliefs to do something that they may feel was promoting same sex relationships. The Regulations provide an exemption for religious organisations but not for “Christian businesses”, which it was felt could not be defined legally. Judge Brownlie touched on this in her judgement, saying that “[Ashers] are not a religious organisation. They conduct a business for profit”.

Let’s remove the words “or philosophical” from Mr Hart’s statement for a moment, because they’re problematic. Just because I might have constructed a personal philosophy that says (to take this example) that gay marriage is wrong shouldn’t give me an exemption from equality legislation. Let’s focus instead on the concept of “reasonable accommodation” based on people’s religious beliefs. The Regulations provide some useful wording about how this might work – where there is “…[conflict] with the strongly held religious convictions of a significant number of the religion’s followers.” So this would allow for minority views within a religion so long as they were shared by a significant number of its followers.

What’s wrong with providing “reasonable accommodation” for those whose belief?

Let’s take a step back and ask why we have anti-discrimination legislation in the first place. Presumably the primary purpose is to protect certain groups in society. But isn’t the secondary purpose to change people’s attitudes? That’s not to say that every law is created with this purpose – we don’t need The Theft Act 1969 to tell us that stealing is wrong.

(Source – xkcd)

That group of people whose attitudes the law is trying to change includes those whose beliefs are based on religious grounds. You could say that these religious groups are being targeted because their opinions are now a minority view. A letter writer to the Greenville News tackled the question of whether right and wrong should be decided based on public opinion, concluding that “public opinion shifts like the tides but God’s laws are unchanging”. She argues that slavery was always wrong even when public opinion held otherwise. The trouble is that people’s interpretations of religious teachings can be affected by public opinion.

“Slavery, racial discrimination and segregation, and opposition to women’s rights were all supported by strong religious arguments bolstered by citations to the Bible.  As scholarly work has shown, these religious views were deeply held by many people.”

(Source – Wake Forest Law Review)

Today, I’m sure the common reading of the Bible would not support (for example) slavery or racial segregation.

This is, ultimately, a question of competing rights. Both sides could argue that their freedom of speech was at risk. DUP MLA Paul Givan said “What we cannot have is a hierarchy of rights, and today there’s a clear hierarchy being established that gay rights are more important than the rights of people to hold religious beliefs” and with due respect to Mr Givan, that’s clearly nonsense. If the case had been decided in favour of Ashers, that would have been establishing that the right to hold religious beliefs was more important than gay rights. The rights and freedoms of Mr Lee and the MacArthurs were in conflict here, and any outcome was going to set a “hierarchy”, although I wouldn’t say that the judgement should be taken as saying that this particular hierarchy is true for all situations.

Much has also been made on the question of whether Ashers would really have been ‘promoting’ gay marriage by making this cake. If they’d produced another cake the following week for another customer with the title “Against Gay Marriage”, would people be saying they were hypocritical or saying that they clearly have a wide customer base? In this case, I would say that baking this cake would not have amounted to promotion unless (for example) they displayed the cake in their shop window. The MacArthurs were not being asked to make a statement that they themselves supported gay marriage, nor were they being asked to take part in or attend a gay marriage themselves.

But I’d also say that the question of whether this constituted ‘promotion’ isn’t really relevant. Consider a taxi driver who refuses a fare because the would-be passengers were gay. Now consider a limo driver who refuses to take a booking to take the brides or grooms to a same-sex marriage service on the basis of their sexual orientation. The latter example might possibly be interpreted as ‘promoting’ or at least ‘supporting’, but the first example is just a simple provision of service with no particular message attached. But in both examples, the impact on individuals who are refused service is the same: they’re left stood at the side of the road whereas a heterosexual couple in the same scenarios would not have been.

Another example of a business service gives greater pause for concern, though. Consider the Muslim printer asked to reproduce a cartoon of the prophet Mohammed. Here, the person is absolutely being asked to do something that is against their religious beliefs. If we argue that the law is right to compel the printer to take this job, we leave them with a very stark choice. Robin Allen QC, representing Mr Lee, was very clear – if the MacArthurs could not follow the law because of their religious beliefs then they needed to find another line of business.

And this seems harsh, but it is the necessary conclusion of having anti-discrimination legislation. The law is there to guide the actions of people whose personal belief is that they should discriminate against a group. Whatever is in their minds, if they have chosen to go into business then the guest house owner must offer a double room to same sex couples, the printer must be willing to print wedding invites for same sex marriages, the florist must provide flowers, and the bake must bake the cake.

As for Ashers and the MacArthurs, for now they’re liable for the agreed damages of £500. The Christian Institute has met their legal expenses. The next question is whether they will appeal the decision…

 

May 9, 2015
by Jon
0 comments

Electoral Maths

So the election is over, and depending on your political view point we’re destined for five years of good government, five years of bad government, or five years of it doesn’t really matter because they’re all as bad as each other.

As the results started to come through, it became clear that UKIP’s share of the vote wasn’t going to turn into a significant number of seats. Commentators started making a comparison with the SNP – UKIP got 3.9 million votes and turned this into 1 seat; the SNP got 1.5 million votes and 56 MPs.

The problem with this comparison is that the SNP only contested the 59 seats in Scotland, where they got 50% of the vote, over double Labour’s share in the region. UKIP contested 41 out of 59 seats in Scotland and got 1.6% of the vote. But even if you look just at Scotland, 50% of the votes for 95% of the seats.

The Independent put together a chart of what the make up of Parliament would have looked like under “a proportional voting system”:

There are a number of different proportional representation systems, and the model above simply assigns seats according to the national share of the vote. For those who can remember 2011, the UK had a referendum on a different form of PR – Single Transferable Vote, where you rank candidates in order and if your first choice candidate comes bottom of the list, your votes are transferred to your second choice candidate. The result of the referendum was this – a fairly categorical decision that the country did NOT want to use STV:

But let’s continue anyway, reminding ourselves that if the election was being held under a PR system, people may have voted differently, so the analysis that follows is likely to be about as accurate as an opinion poll. Based on how STV works, we don’t have the data to be able to work out what might have happened under that system, but with UKIP coming second in 118 constituencies, it’s possible that they would have done well under an STV system.

The Independent’s chart accounts for 626 of the 650 seats, which made me wonder what the impact might be on the smaller parties. For comparison, this is what we got on the First Past the Post (FPtP) system:

FPtP

And this is what we would have got if you take the national vote for each party and apply it using a simple Proportional Representation (PR) model:

 

PartyFPtPPRChange
Conservative

331

240

-91

Labour

232

198

-34

UKIP

1

82

+81

Lib Dem

8

51

+43

SNP

56

31

-25

Green

1

25

+24

DUP

8

4

-4

Sinn Fein

4

4

=

Plaid Cymru

3

4

+1

SDLP

3

2

-1

Ulster Unionist

2

2

=

Alliance Party

0

1

+1

TUSC

0

1

+1

National Health Action

0

1

+1

Traditional Unionist Voice

0

1

+1

Respect

0

1

+1

Others

1

2

+1

 

The Conservatives and Labour do much worse under this model; the Liberal Democrats are in fourth place but have a substantial number of MPs. UKIP and the Greens do very well out of the deal. And the SNP ends up as a significant player but with its number of MPs nearly halved. When you look at the smaller parties, the DUP does badly but the other parties in Northern Ireland are more or less unchanged.

Among the very small parties, we end up with more ‘Others’, notably George Galloway, who did enough in his ballot to get a seat based on his share of the vote. My approach here was to allocate seats to the parties whose vote gave them less than 1 seat in descending order of votes until I ran out of seats.

So where did the seats for the SNP and DUP ‘go’? Notably, these are both parties the stand in a limited number of constituencies within a specific region. And this simple PR approach has done something subtle here – instead of allocation 40 seats to Wales, 59 seats to Scotland and 18 seats to Northern Ireland, we’re allocating seats based on number of votes cast – which will be a product both of the size of the electorate in each region and the turnout. In this election we saw an above average turnout in Scotland but a below average turnout in Northern Ireland.

It turns out that during this election, Wales and Northern Ireland both lose out under this model:

EnglandWalesScotlandNorthern Ireland
Number of seats – FPtP

533

40

59

18

Size of electorate

38811622

2282297

4094784

1236683

Turnout – 2015

25571209

1498433

2910465

718103

Turnout – 2015 (%)

66%

66%

71%

58%

Number of seats – PR

541

32

62

15

Change

+8

-8

+3

-3

 

You can reduce the impact of this by calculating your seats on a regional model instead – taking the share of the vote in England and apportioning its 533 seats accordingly, then doing the same for the other three regions.

 

PartyFPtPPR (Nat)PR (Reg)Change (Nat)Change (Reg)
Conservative

331

240

239

-91

-92

Labour

232

198

198

-34

-34

UKIP

1

82

81

+81

+80

Lib Dem

8

51

51

+43

+43

SNP

56

31

29

-25

-27

Green

1

25

24

+24

+23

DUP

8

4

5

-4

-3

Sinn Fein

4

4

4

=

=

Plaid Cymru

3

4

5

+1

+2

SDLP

3

2

3

-1

=

Ulster Unionist

2

2

3

=

+1

Alliance Party

0

1

2

+1

+2

TUSC

0

1

2

+1

+2

National Health Action

0

1

1

+1

+1

Traditional Unionist Voice

0

1

0

+1

=

Respect

0

1

1

+1

+1

Others

1

2

2

+1

+1

 

The Northern Ireland parties see a slight improvement under this model. The SNP does slightly worse because it no longer gets an advantage from Scotland’s higher turnout. And of course if we were doing this ‘properly’, we’d break England down into regions rather than considering all 533 seats in one lump.

Either of the PR systems ends up requiring a coalition to form a government – and based on historical voting in general elections, that would be the norm. Since 1880, there have only been four elections where a single party achieved over 50% of the vote (in 1886, 1900, 1931 and 1935).

If these votes had been cast in a PR-based election, the Conservatives would still have been the largest party and constitutionally would have been the ones to try to form a coalition first. The third largest party would have been UKIP, and their combined seats would have been just short of the 325 MPs needed, so they’d need some further support from one or more of the other parties, but potentially could have formed a government. Instead of resigning as his party’s leader, Nigel Farage would probably be Deputy Prime Minister. Labour, on the other hand, would not have enough seats even if it managed to assemble a coalition with SNP, the Lib Dems, and the Greens.

Would that be a better result? Well, that’s what the Comments box is for below – you decide!