Driven by data; ridden with liberty.
Private Member’s Bills allow backbench parliamentarians to advance legislation. There have been multiple Acts of Parliament that have this genesis, including the Abortion Act 1967 and the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act 1965. Whilst many of these proposals die a quick death, swiftly drowned by filibustering and poor attendance, they often reveal hidden concerns.
Philip Hollobone, the Conservative MP for Kettering, has proposed two rather egregious Bills: the Face Coverings (Prohibition) Bill and the National Service Bill. Mr Hollobone is supported on these Bills by Peter Bone (Conservative, Wellingborough) and Christopher Chope (Conservative, Christchurch). The first one demands “a person wearing a garment or other object intended by the wearer as its primary purpose to obscure the face in a public place shall be guilty of an offence”. There are several exceptions, including if the face is covered “for reasons of health or safety”, sport, art, leisure, entertainment or “in a place of worship”. The Bill states a person guilty of this offence shall be fined.
A similar French offence was established in 2010, and is commonly called the ‘burka ban’, despite estimates of only 2,000 women in France wearing the garment. Adbel Muti al-Buyyumi, a cleric at Egypt’s influential Al-Azhar Mosque, says that the burka and niqab “has no basis in Islamic law and there is nothing in the Koran or Sunna that supports it”. Despite this, some Muslim women see wearing a veil as an act of cultural expression. Misogynistic overtones and possibility of marital coercion are often cited in calls for bans, but there are already laws against domestic abuse. If it is wrong for a husband to force their wife to wear the veil, it is wrong for the state to force women not to wear it. Whilst face-coverings, such as balaclavas, are associated with violent revolutionaries, there is nothing harmful – in of itself – in obscuring a person’s face.
The National Service Bill seeks to force nearly every young person, exempting those with “severe mental or physical disability”, to undertake one year of national service between the age of 18 and 26. This service would be in charitable work, social action, care for the elderly or disabled, overseas development, the NHS, or emergency work in the Armed Forces. It would be a criminal offense not to do so.
Involuntary servitude – coerced labour – is the abolition of adult choice over their employment, forcing them to work. This coercion does not become valid merely because a person works for the benefit of the state, rather than picking cotton or mining. The 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution outlawed involuntary servitude, along with slavery. The World War II conscription lingered until 1960. If these national service schemes instil “self-respect, personal reliance, discipline and behaviour”, as Mr Hollobone suggests, then adults should be free to undertake it, and gain this benefit through their own choice.
In calling for involuntary servitude and a fashion police state, these Conservative MPs have embarrassed and ashamed themselves by oozing such illiberal laxity.