NSS council prayers challenge: Equalities chief Phillips gets it horribly wrong

TREVOR Phillips, Chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, exposed breathtaking ignorance on Sunday by alleging that the NSS was using the High Court in London to PROSECUTE a West Country council over prayers said in the council chamber.

Trevor Phillips

Under the headline Human rights should help us protect the vulnerable (behind paywall) Phillips wrote:

But there are some examples of cases in which, though the Human Rights Act might technically be applicable, I do wonder if people have just lost the plot. Last week, for example, Keith Porteous Wood of the National Secular Society, a decent and sincere fellow, made me drop my coffee when he told early-morning radio that he wanted to use the Act to prosecute the councillors of a small town in Devon.

What was their alleged crime? Compelling unbelievers to walk over hot coals? Forcing small children to recite chunks of scripture before breakfast? No. It was for taking a democratic decision that those councillors who wished to follow the long tradition of saying prayers before meetings in the Council Chamber could do so.

The underlining is ours.

NSS Executive Director Keith Porteous Wood notified us in an email today that he had written to the paper, expressing his disappointment over “the serious inaccuracies” in Phillips’ piece.

We are not seeking to prosecute anyone, and we have we had no objection to prayers being said before Council meetings. It was clear from the Today programme interview that this was not a prosecution but a High Court hearing (a Judicial Review), and as Councillor Christie said on the clip, there had been an attempt to move the prayers to before the meeting (or have a short period of silence), but that the Christian councillors of Bideford had rejected this.

Our co-applicant Councillor, Clive Bone, led that compromise process. We specifically said in the High Court hearing later on 2 December that we had no objection to pre-meeting prayers or a period of silence during the meeting.

Wood added:

Seeking clarity in the law would seem everyone’s fundamental human right, including ours and I am saddened to be attacked for doing so.

Just for the record, the NSS is trying to avoid the creation of a hierarchy of Human Rights with religion at the top, and we see that as a very real danger. That is why we intervened in the application of Ladele Eweida Chaplin McFarlane to the ECHR. We are the only organisation to have intervened to support all four judgments, as the Government has done, although I am pleased the EHRC now supports two of the verdicts.

 I would appreciate an attempt by you to correct the record as both errors were repeated by the Sunday Times’ Marie Woolf and the Daily Mail.

NSS President Terry Sanderson points out here:

The NSS’s court challenge drew an extraordinary and almost entirely negative reaction from commentators. Most of it could have been written well in advance by the usual suspects, so predictable was it.

Ann Widdecombe in the Daily Express could hardly contain her heaving anger as she labelled Clive Bone — the councillor at the centre of this case — ‘an ass’ and added: ‘I hope the High Court throws out this nasty little action, which predictably is backed by the National Secular Society, and awards the not inconsiderable costs against that body.’



30 responses to “NSS council prayers challenge: Equalities chief Phillips gets it horribly wrong”

  1. The Woggler says:

    What idiot put Trevor Phillips in charge of a body ‘promoting’ equality and human rights? The man clearly believes these things are the province of religious people. A quick look at the EHRC website reveals they do good, important work, but shouldn’t their chief be less biaised towards the religious minority?

  2. AgentCormac says:

    Ah, the ever-lovely Ann Widdecombe. You can tell her what you think about her odious views on the subject right here.

  3. Sabbag says:

    And Ann Widdecombe feels she needs to attack this councillor in the national media for what exactly? Expressing a view? Challenging the status quo? Highlighting that christian councillors have every single minute of every single hour in every single day not taken up with council business to practice their arcane rites?

  4. elainek123 says:

    Teach evolution, not creationism Responsible department: Department for Education

    A petition on that I have just signed.

  5. elainek123 says:

    Going away from this a little I have also posted my own petition on this government site as follows. I would appreciate any signatures.

    pETITION:-We must stop child labour all over the world Now. Stop accepting goods from countries that support child labour.

    Number of signatures: 1 Created by: elaine kilshaw
    Closing: 07/06/2012

  6. AngieRS says:

    Why the surprise with Phillips? He’s the one who invited a hard line anti-Gay evangelist onto the equality commission and couldn’t see what the fuss was about. Anything he says should automatically be treated with suspicion.

  7. Trybrow says:

    wow wow wow, wait a second, i am *SHOCKED* at the responses I am reading in these comments. Can’t you see that Trevor Phillips is black and therefore can never be responsible for doing anything wrong ever especially when it comes to know about equality and stuff like that!?

  8. tony e says:

    elainek123 – signed petition

  9. Don says:


    That’s what you take from this story?

  10. Don says:


    While I intuitively sympathise with your cause I don’t think I can support it. Child labour can’t be stopped overnight – what would replace the income and pay for the meagre food it supplies?

    The major retailers should certainly be held to very strict account for the conditions in which the goods they sell are produced (regardless of the age of the worker) however many removes they might wish to put between themselves and the production process. We should really hold their feet to the fire on this and insist that at the very least they become model employers with limited hours for children, properly monitored conditions, and providing free education.

    Child labour is just one of the faces of poverty. Stopping it, were that even possible, would not mean that the children would go to school or have their basic needs met. Just that they would lose the pittance upon which they depend.

    The callous exploitation of children is one of the ugliest faces of poverty. Making transparency and decent conditions a pre-condition of selling to the rest of the world would, I believe, be a more practical step towards social justice.

  11. Stonyground says:

    Actually Don, after reading an earlier post about A violent attack that involved a girl being assaulted and called a “white bitch” not being regarded by the judge as being racially motivated, I think that Trybrow may have a point.

    The problem that I see with Trevor Phillips has nothing to do with his colour, he just doesn’t seem to get what the word equality even means. This would seem to me to be a bit of a problem considering his job description.

    It should also be noted that pissing off Ann Widdecombe is pretty much a guarantee that you are in the right.

  12. Daz says:


    Either you’re being serious and it just looks like sarcasm—in which case, fuck off; or you have a racist bee in your bonnet about black people ‘being given special treatment’ of some kind, in which case, well … guess what…

    Or maybe you have a third explanation?

  13. AgentCormac says:


    Completely agree that the problem with Trevor Phillips has nothing to do with his colour. It has everything to do with the fact that, like the BBC, he seems biased in favour of religion as a whole, and does not believe that atheists have any kind of right to be heard or their views even acknowledged – other than as some kind of rabid lunatics who want to bring civilisation to its needs.

    Phillips was brought up in a Salvation Army background (nuff said), and has been quoted as saying that he can “…understand why a lot of people in faith groups feel a bit under siege”. That there’s “…no question that there is more anti-religion noise in Britain.” And that “…equality laws should not apply to the internal organisation of religious groups. It’s perfectly fair that you can’t be a Roman Catholic priest unless you’re a man. It seems right that the reach of anti-discriminatory law should stop at the door of the church or mosque.”

    Doesn’t sound like someone who should be in charge of the Equality and Human Rights Commission to me.

  14. barriejohn says:

    Atheists are such wicked people. Only religion can motivate people to do good.

  15. Don says:


    Really? You think Trybrow has a point? Then why didn’t he make it, instead of a snide ‘Well, he’s black, so, y’know’? He doesn’t have a point at all, certainly not in the context of the OP.

  16. 1859 says:

    This Phillips guy reminds me of George Bush – in high office and plain stupid.To successfully promote equality and human rights would require a wisdom and sense of fairness that usually comes with experience and years – Phillips comes across as sixth former put in charge of the Ministry of Education.

  17. Angela_K says:

    Mr Phillips has a BSc in Chemistry so you’d think he would be more analytical in his approach to equality. He is also pretty hard left, which is probably where his Animal Farm “some are more equal than others” ideas come from.

  18. Sabbag says:

    Angela – I don’t know too much about Trevor Phillips, but it is clear that whatever political statements he may have made, he is naturally conservative, so I would question his “hard left” credentials. Most people I know who are genuinely “of the left” have an in built suspicion of religion and the establishments it constructs.

  19. barriejohn says:

    Trevor Phillips is pretty squarely “New Labour” – whatever that may mean!

  20. Brian Jordan says:

    Phillips has previous – he thinks, and has said, that people without religion are not “fulfilled human beings”. So I imagine he thinks they ought to be compelled to attend prayers in the hope that they will be converted.

  21. remigius says:

    Some interesting comments. I’m not sure the colour of Trev’s skin has anything to do with his inability to do his job properly. There are many white people whose religious convictions and tenuous grip on reality would make them equally inept. Yes you, Widdecombe.

    Maybe Keith Porteous Wood could take over as chair of the EHRC, and Trev could get himself a dictionary and learn what the word equality means.

  22. Broga says:

    Philips and Widdicombe: imagine that pair round your table at Christmas.

  23. remigius says:

    Broga. If Trev can’t manage to hold on to a cup of coffee whilst listening to the radio there is no way he could safely handle cutlery.

    And as for Widdecombe, we usually save the fruitcake for Boxing Day.

  24. barriejohn says:

    A turkey and a fruitcake then, Broga!

  25. Stonyground says:

    Actually, on reflection, no Trybrow doesn’t have a point. Reverse discrimination is sometimes a problem but it has no relevance whatsoever to this story.

  26. Broga says:

    remigus/barriejohn: I think I’ll pass. I can imagine the problems kicking in along the line. We don’t say grace, we don’t watch the Queen patronising her subjects, we don’t go to church, we don’t watch all that shite television (I understand the lumpish Widders appears on that), there will definitely be an atheistic book among the presents, my new (this month) grandchild will not be christened so that would be a talking point, we are admirers of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and others and think Ratzinger is a blight on the planet, we can prove that the speed of light can be exceeded when we reach for the off switch when Thought for the Day is announced. That will do for a start. Might make for a lively discussion.

  27. Adrian says:

    Off Topic but i think people should know that Widdecombe is appearing in panto in Dartford. It is said she will be “dancing” again.

    My advice– avoid Dartford!

  28. remigius says:

    Adrian. It’s not Cindarella by any chance? I didn’t know she had a sister.

  29. barriejohn says:

    “The Dartford Wobbler” – a rare bird, but not quite rare enough!

    BTW Did you realize that the batty old prima donna got into a right state when she was passed over for a peerage? (Doesn’t the Bible say something about humility?)

  30. remigius says:

    barriejohn. The Widdecombe wants a peerage for the same reason they won’t give her one. She knows it is the only chance she’ll ever have to be referred to as a lady, but they just can’t bring themselves to do it.

    Could you?