Catholic Church ‘bares its teeth’ on education
Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, had a solution. He was going to require new faith schools to accept 25 per cent of pupils from other faiths, in the hope that resulting melee would not be insular or socially divisive. But in the face of an unprecedented lobbying operation by the two-million strong Roman Catholic community, we have witnessed, according to the former Conservative education secretary Lord Baker, ‘the fastest U-turn in British political history’. Lord Baker is in no doubt that it was the Catholic Church's campaign against the proposal which had persuaded the Cabinet to change its mind. He accused the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Birmingham, Vincent Nichols, of running a ‘very deceptive campaign’ based on ‘a tantamount lie’. Keith Porteous Wood, of the National Secular Society, said it was ‘frightening’ to see the Government back down as soon as the Catholic Church ‘bared its teeth’.
Archbishop Nichols was the architect of the campaign. He mobilised the Catholic lobby in England and Wales, threatening Labour with the alienation of two million voters. This would have had a sizeable effect on many key marginal seats at the next General Election. Letters were written to all 2000 Catholic head teachers in the country urging them to lobby their MPs to oppose the plans. They in turn sent letters to parents urging them to join the campaign. The deception was in his suggestion that the quota would apply to all faith schools, when in fact the proposals were for all new faith schools – therefore particularly aimed at the 180 Muslim schools currently being planned. Lord Baker said: ‘It is craven surrender because the Catholics have given nothing. There is no proposal for a new Catholic school in the country. The real beneficiary is going to be Muslim schools. I have tabled an amendment which incorporates what the government policy was on Thursday night. We probably won't win, but it will be very embarrassing to the government.’
Lord Baker told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: ‘If you have a group of primary Muslim schools starting, then some secondary schools, you have a closed community. They'll ask for their own inspection, they will ask for modifications to the curriculum and they will probably ask for family community law. If you have those ghettos, they will be closed communities. No other children will want to go into them. And the characteristics of a ghetto are to be underprivileged, disadvantaged and poor.’ The Education Secretary also faces a battle with teachers’ unions outraged at the amendment that he introduced at the last minute giving faith schools increased powers to refuse to employ staff off different faiths. Amendment 54 gives faith schools new rights to discriminate on the ground of religion when employing support staff and head teachers. This may be very much at odds with EU law prohibiting precisely such discrimination.
Cranmer wishes to point out that there was also a group of individuals within the Government which is prepared to fight the Catholic corner. Chief among them is the cabinet minister Ruth Kelly, the former education secretary and a member of the Catholic conservative movement Opus Dei. There is also the Prime Minister's wife, Cherie Blair, and Home Secretary, John Reid.
If anyone thinks the Catholic Church is without political teeth in the Protestant United Kingdom, they have only to consider the evidence in this case.