Leading article: Rules and regulations

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Some rather unlikely rebels have come to our attention this week. Four years ago, Brigitte Tee-Hillman was arrested for picking mushrooms in the New Forest, something she had been doing for 30 years. The 64-year-old was informed by the Forestry Commission that she was committing a criminal offence because she planned to sell the fungi on. Criminal charges against her were finally thrown out in May this year at Southampton Crown Court and Ms Tee-Hillman has now been granted a special licence to pick mushrooms in the national park. As we report today, she is now gathering chanterelles once again.

Will there be a similar happy ending for Nadia Eweida? This week Ms Eweida, a British Airways check-in worker, lost an appeal against a ruling by her employer that she could not wear a small, discreet cross around her neck while at work. A succession of Anglican bishops has criticised the ruling. One hundred MPs have signed a parliamentary motion asking BA to rethink the ban. The leader of the Commons, Jack Straw, has described the BA ruling as "wholly inexplicable". Ms Eweida now has the opportunity to ask for a second appeal.

Much of the outcry in the case of Ms Eweida's cross has been over the top. The Bishop of Lichfield has absurdly accused BA of wanting to "destroy the spiritual foundation of our nation". Some of the coverage has had a nasty edge too, particularly the allegation that Muslim and Sikh employees of BA are being unfairly favoured because they are allowed to wear headscarves and turbans.

But the case, and also that of Ms Tee-Hillman, does emphasise that one of the traditional virtues of British public life is in danger of slipping away. What happened to tolerance? BA need not have treated Ms Eweida so harshly. And the Forestry Commission could have been less heavy-handed with Ms Tee-Hillman. In both cases it was plain that neither woman was doing any harm. Both authorities were perfectly capable of exercising their discretion. By choosing to be inflexible, they have caused themselves a lot of silly bother, not to mention damaging their reputations.

Whenever a case like this comes to light it is never long before the boring cry of "political correctness gone mad" goes up. But political correctness has nothing to do with it. These are depressing tales of simple bureaucratic small-mindedness.

Comments