THE TABLET THE I NTERNATIONAL CATHOLIC WEEKLY
Founded in 1840
SOMETHING GOOD FOR ALL OF US
Acommon charge made by people hostile to religion is that it is harmful rather than beneficial. This has become a popular misperception. In fact, a growing body of evidence points the other way. The latest report from the think tank Demos confirms previous findings that people with a declared religious belief are more likely to engage in voluntary service to the community, more likely to be open-minded on race and immigration, and indeed more likely to donate time and money to good causes. The main thrust of the report was an attempt to show that progressive-minded secularists were hurting their own cause by ignoring a substantial sector of the population who shared many of their values. Clearly, too many British secular commentators base their generalisations on their distaste for American fundamentalists, who as a mass movement have no real counterpart in the UK.
There is a similar body of evidence, surveyed in this edition of The Tablet by Mark Vernon, that religious faith can also be personally beneficial in that it appears to improve psychological well-being and even longevity. Thus governments interested in making their populations happier should want religion itself to prosper, any religion being presumed better than none from this strictly instrumentalist viewpoint. But the present British Government has no coherent strategy in this regard. The latest Budget, for instance, threatened to impose VAT on church renovations, provoking protests from church leaders.
Even more significantly, it threatened to place a limit on the extent to which charitable donations are exempt from income tax. Many important church projects – the visit of Pope Benedict
XVI to Britain in 2010 is a good example – are possible only because of generous gifts from donors. As the Catholic philanthropist John Studzinski explained in a recent article in The Tablet, 174 charitable donations of more than £1 million were made in 2009-2010, 80 of them by individuals. This is a substantial proportion of the whole. The voluntary sector, the promotion of which the Government has claimed to favour under its Big Society banner, needs more of this, not less.
On the one hand the Government says it wants to encourage philanthropy. On the other, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, appears to have confused this philanthropic generosity with disreputable forms of tax evasion, usually done by individuals trying to line their owns pockets.
That is indeed a scandal that needs addressing. But someone who gives money to charity is not thereby personally enriched – at least, not this side of heaven. The losers from imposing a cap on the amount qualifying for tax exemption are the recipient charities, who have been complaining loudly. If the donor wanted to make good that loss, he would have to increase his donation by the amount of tax that Mr Osborne wants to take out of it. That is a big discouragement.
The former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is engaged in philanthropy both personally and as head of a charitable foundation, has urged the Government to separate the issue of tax exemption for charitable donations from the issue of tax evasion. He is right. Someone who earns £1 million and gives every penny of it to charity will pay no income tax. But to label such a public benefactor a tax evader is quite unfair.
COMMON SENSE ON HUMAN RIGHTS
It is an important principle that the United Kingdom should not condone or in any way cooperate with torture. That has been the issue in several high-profile human-rights cases, ranging from the Government’s desire to deport the Islamist preacher Abu Qatada to Jordan, to the accusation – denied – that the former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw permitted the rendition to Libya of opponents of Colonel Gaddafi’s regime, where torture was practised. Such cases have become entangled in the controversy over the Human Rights Act, and the role of the European Court of Human Rights in frustrating the way in which governments may want to treat terror suspects.
Britain currently occupies the rotating chairmanship of the Council of Europe, the parent body of the European Court of Human Rights, and has taken the opportunity to convene a meeting of all 47 members of the council to discuss ways to improve its operation. The backlog of unheard cases, some 150,000, is horrendous.
A further layer of complication is added by the disagreement between the partners in the Coalition as to whether to scrap the Human Rights Act and replace it with something else, which the Conservatives have grandly called a Bill of Rights. It is assumed that such a bill would have to be fully compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, which is reproduced word for word in the present Human Rights Act. So the point of this operation – apart from placating backbenchers in the Tory party – is somewhat obscure.
The Human Rights Act has had a bad press, not least because some of the decisions are widely regarded as having got the balance wrong – between, for instance, an individual suspect’s right to freedom of movement and the general population’s right not to be blown up by a suicide bomber.
At the same time, the concept of human rights has been brought into disrespect by the way in which rights seem to multiply in response to special interest groups.
It is not a bad idea to look at how the Human Rights Act is working, nor to question whether a convention drafted 60 years ago in different circumstances is suitable for its purpose today. The fact remains, however, that many of the abuses the convention sought to outlaw, such as detention without trial and torture, are still widespread if not in Europe itself then not far from Europe’s borders. Disgracefully, the United States has been implicated in some of these cases, and there is evidence that Britain was drawn into them too, though more marginally. What is hard to register in any court of law is the degree of risk – the likelihood that, for instance, Abu Qatada might still be tortured on return to Jordan despite undertakings from the Jordanian authorities that he will not. The same difficulty applies to the work of British intelligence officers. How strongly do they have to suspect that someone held in a foreign jail is liable to be tortured, before they withdraw from the process of questioning him?
The standard to be applied in all such cases should be a strict one, but stopping short of infallibility. Human-rights legislation that sets the bar unreasonably high, or leads to decisions which defy common sense, will erode public support. That is precisely what has been happening.
2 | THE TABLET | 21 April 2012 COLUMN
5 CL I F FORD LONGLEY
‘Consummation is never discussed. Is this embarrassment, or is there a wider significance?’
9 SARA MAITLAND
‘The poem’s Jesus is a Saxon-style Lord who does not passively accept his doom’
1 2 CHRISTOPHER HOWSE’S
PRESSWATCH ‘Techno is not really my genre, indeed I’d almost prefer listening to Professor Sandel’
1 3 PARISH PRACTICE 1 4 NOTEBOOK 1 5 L ETTERS 1 6 THE L I V I NG S P I R I T 1 7 PUZZLES
S PRING BOOKS
1 8 CHARLES POWELL
Reagan and Thatcher: the difficult relationship Richard Aldous
LYNN ROBERTS The Coward’s Tale Vanessa Gebbie
T IMOTHY BR I TTA I N - CATLIN Freemasonry and the Enlightenment: architecture, symbols and influences James Stevens Curl
2 3 F EATURE
Laura Gascoigne Damien Hirst
THEATRE Mark Lawson Misterman
T E L EV I S I ON John Morrish 9/11: The Lost Tapes
C I NEMA Francine Stock Marley
2 1 APRIL 2 0 1 2
COVER STORY 4 Why religion is good for you Mark Vernon
Recent studies have suggested that people with faith are happier than non-believers. But the reports are missing one key component
6 As the guns fall silent, the people dare to hope
Kari Mariska Pries A fragile peace has been brokered by the Church between El Salvador’s warring gangs
8 On the offensive Peter Jones
It should take more than a tendentious claim of ‘offensiveness’ to justify a ban on free expression, says a leading political philosopher
1 0 Spies need scrutiny, too Conor Gearty
The Government is considering allowing closed court proceedings in terrorism cases, but is it to save the blushes of the security services?
1 1 Holy birds of the heavens Mary Colwell
Swifts will soon be arriving on Britain’s shores, but many of their traditional nesting sites are disappearing
2 7 THE CHURCH I N THE WORLD
Kuwait passes law imposing death penalty for blasphemy 3 0 L ETTER FROM ROME 3 1 NEWS FROM BRITAIN AND I RELAND
Nichols criticises VAT on church renovations
COVER ILLUSTRATION: DANI JIMENEZ
21 April 2012 | THE TABLET | 3