The "right" to discriminate? It doesn't exist

You have the right to be homophobic -- but not to put these beliefs into harmful action.

You have the right to be homophobic -- but not to put these beliefs into harmful action.

An Englishman's home is his castle, or so the phrase informs us. That small scrap of land that is ours to do with as we please. However, as Christian guesthouse owners Peter and Hazelmary Bull have found, once said castle is opened up to the public, the rules begin to change. Specifically, if you say you'll rent your rooms to strangers, it's illegal to turn away the ones that are gay.

Nelson Jones wrote this week that "the intimate circumstances of bed-sharing...complicate the situation". I would have to disagree. Banning gay guests from your premises becomes no more legal if the rule "only" applies to those who might end up having sex. Or in this particular case, those who wish to do so in a double room and without one of the couple making a walk of shame to spend the night back in their single bed.

Though some of the issues raised by this trial may be complex, the concept of discrimination is not. Just as it's against the law to run a business and only serve people with white skin, so it's against the law to run a business and only serve people who like to sleep with the opposite sex. That the banned customer could go elsewhere does not, as Nelson suggests, change this. There could be a hundred other guesthouses available to a gay couple but it would have no relevance to whether it was right or legal for one to turn them away.

Everyone (conducting themselves within the law) has the right to be served everywhere, and to say a policy like the Bull's "need not unduly inconvenience gay couples" is to severely reduce what's wrong with discrimination.

When civil partners Martyn Hall and Steven Preddy were denied a double room, the harm didn't simply come from the effort of re-arranging their plans, or even the (at best) embarrassment that such a need would cause. It came from being excluded because of a biologically determined difference, from being banned from doing something because of who they are. The law says this is wrong. That "the God worshipped by the Bulls does not" is, though unfortunate, irrelevant. Discrimination is discrimination, whether it stems from the playground or a Holy Book.

It would be easy to see such a verdict as an attack on freedom, an attempt by the state to take an unpopular belief and make it illegal. This would, though, be inaccurate. This is not a case that judged the right to be homophobic (or "old fashioned" if that is what we wish to call it). It is a case that judged the right to be homophobic and use that belief to hurt someone else.

How hurt is defined is fundamental -- whether we live by the notion that prejudice only hurts its victim if it involves blood and a physical blow. Nelson is right that philosophy can teach that "multiple preferences" are best, provided they don't cause ill-effects, but it can also tell us the point at which these ill-effects mean our actions must stop. Liberal theory -- the ideas we base our laws on -- sets clear restrictions on personal liberty: "The right to swing my fist ends where the other man's nose begins." The Bulls have the right to think homosexuality is wrong. If they so wish, they have the right to be repulsed by the thought of two men having sex and even to declare out loud the perils in this sin. They do not have the right to put these beliefs into harmful action, to use them in a way that leads to discrimination.

No one laid a finger on Martyn or Steven. By all accounts, Mr and Mrs Bull were very polite in telling them they were not allowed to share a room with the person who is their partner by law. This does nothing to change the fact this was discrimination. One can't help but wonder whether if their reason had been something other than sexuality, this would even be under contention. There would be unanimous disgust at a guesthouse that held a policy of "No Blacks with Whites Allowed" -- and that it involved "the intimate circumstances of bed-sharing" would evoke little sympathy if inter-race couples were told to take separate rooms.

Such beliefs, in these times, cannot be put into practice. If you open your castle to the public, it's the price you have to pay.

Frances Ryan is a freelance writer and political researcher at the University of Nottingham. She blogs at Different Principles and tweets @frances_ryan


Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.