Why Phil Woolas should take his own advice

by Stephen Tall on October 15, 2006

There’s a right way of going about things, and there’s a wrong way. Today’s crass and clumsy intervention by Labour’s Phil Woolas – calling on suspended teaching assistant Aishah Azmi to be sacked – falls squarely in the latter, dog-whistling category.

Why? Because there is such a thing as due process, an essential component of that fundamental liberal principle, the rule of law: our guarantor of peace, order and good government.

At its heart, this means that every citizen who is subject to any form of judicial process must have confidence that they will be given a fair hearing equal to that of any other citizen. Evidence will be tested in a robust and impartial manner, and a verdict independently determined by those who have heard it all at first-hand.

Ms Azmi’s case was heard by an employment tribunal over the course of five days in September, with the judgement due in a couple of weeks. As a result, when her employer, Kirklees Council, was asked for a quote by the media they said simply: “It would be inappropriate to comment further.” Mr Woolas felt no such constraints: “She should be sacked. She has put herself in a position where she can’t do her job.”

Fair enough, you might argue. Not only is Mr Woolas a Member of Parliament for near-by Oldham, he is also the government minister whose responsibilities include ‘Community Cohesion, Race and Faith’. Who better to make clear his position on behalf of the Government?

But who is in a better position to judge the rights and wrongs of Ms Azmi’s case against the Council: a tribunal which has heard the full story from both sides? Or an attention-seeking, rent-a-quote MP who thinks nothing of trampling over a woman’s life and career if it secures him a couple of column inches in the Sunday Mirror?

Individual cases (understandably) get the press excited: they are comprehensible and bite-size, with lashings of human interest. They should not, though, be the basis for new laws.

However, Mr Woolas – as a member of that band of populist authoritarians which now masquerades as the Labour Party – drops heavy hints in the Mirror that the Government may be unable to resist leaping aboard this passing bandwagon:

Mr Woolas gave a clear signal that the Government would not tolerate others who followed her example. He said: “There are limits in a liberal democracy. There are boundaries in a democracy and this is one of them. It’s a boundary we can’t cross.”

Yet there is no reason to believe that government intervention is needed. This kind of employment issue is best left to the individual school and its governing body to resolve according to their local circumstances.

If a school believes with good reason that recruiting a Muslim woman who wears a veil in lessons would be incompatible with the learning needs of its pupils they should explain why this is to her, and give her the choice of accepting the school’s employment requirements, or turning the job down. But if a school is quite happy to employ as a teacher a Muslim woman wearing a niqab why should I, you or Mr Woolas’s Government have any problem with this?

In the meantime, I hope Mr Woolas will engage his brain before interfering with due process in the future. Or he might just find that he has put himself in a position where he can’t do his job. Sound familiar, Phil?