How would you describe yourself in terms of religion and belief?
I am an Atheist.
My dad didn’t believe in anything, to the point that when we had his funeral last year we had to make sure that it was conducted by a spiritualist and not a religious leader. We made sure it was very neutral. My mum is, I think, Catholic-ish. She has beliefs but she doesn’t go to church. She did in the past when she was younger and she wanted us to go in the past… but we were not interested. She no longer goes.
My sister and I were christened, but my younger brother wasn’t. We weren’t brought up within Catholicism. We occasionally went to church, but it wasn’t something which played a major part in our lives, to be honest.
Would you describe GB is an equal and tolerant society, especially in relation to religion and belief?
I don’t think anywhere is as equal as it should be, but I think that GB is probably one of the most open minded places, and probably the best place to be whoever you are. I would not say it is 100% equal for everybody.
Are there any challenges to living in accordance with your beliefs? If so, are they social, political or legal?
I don’t feel challenged as an atheist in London, which is very multicultural in nature, with people of all different backgrounds and religions. I work for the BBC, with people of different parts of the world and specifically I have been working for BBC Arabic and again, with lots of people of Arabic background. Also, because I haven’t grown up with a focus on religion, I don’t know much about other people’s religions either and don’t know much about their customs, beliefs, what offends them… It has never got me into trouble, but I wish I knew a bit more about it. Coming from a Christian society, in a small town, there was very little focus on other religions and as a result, I don’t have much knowledge nowadays. I guess my lack of knowledge about religious traditions is the real challenge.
Have human rights enshrined in the law been positive for GB society?
HRs are good, but there will always be people who exploit them. I think it is ridiculous that the Government is trying to get rid of them, because we need some guidelines. Atheist voices, such as Fathers for Justice, have contributed immensely to the human rights debate in contemporary Britain. There must be other bodies. Fathers for Justice must be effective, and I don’t think they are aligned to any particular religion. They just want to be around their kids.
Do you think that public authorities respect HRs?
No, I don’t think public authorities respect human rights in Great Britain. I would have thought they are more of a hindrance or a complication to them. Some of the media gives them so much press… common sense is different, but public opinion can be swayed so easily. I think ridiculous stories about Abu Qatada can really sway people’s opinion, and in the workplace it is very much the same.
How do you feel about faith schools?
I don’t know. There isn’t an easy answer. Faith schools are not a new thing. They have become more topical because of all the Muslim schools which have recently been closed down because of female teachers, segregation, or fundamentalism… I don’t know. I think that not being integrated in the wider society doesn’t help people, but equally there is nothing wrong with going to a religious school. Personally I don’t think religion in general is a great thing because I think people often legitimize their own discomforts and actions in the name of religion, but if that is how people want to do it, that is fine. However, it makes more difficult for children who go to those faith schools to be part of the wider community. As long as they get the general education and it does not just focus on the religion side, I wouldn’t have a problem and I don’t have a problem with financial support. There are also very good things which come from religion, but I imagine it definitely makes it harder for children to integrate. I wouldn’t have a problem with some public money to be spent on faith schools, but not a huge amount, as we have limited resources.
Should religious groups be exempt from discrimination law?
No, people should not be allowed to discriminate against other, even if they are running a private business. I don’t like discrimination against anybody. It is tough if you have a business, but you cannot choose… you don’t have to like it, you don’t have to approve of… it is tough.
Do public bodies get the balance between freedom and protection right when it comes to intervening in the lives of citizens?
I don’t really know if public bodies intervene too much or not enough in the lives of individuals concerning religion and belief. In my experience, they try to play safe and they use common sense. I think they step in at the right time and it tends to be the last resort.
When should the State intervene in terms of citizens expressing their religious beliefs?
The State must necessarily intervene when your religious beliefs are affecting other people. A long time ago, twelve months ago, there were some men in some borough in London who were going around harassing women in public… I think it is ok to have your beliefs, but harassing is not acceptable. So, the council or the police rightly stepped in and they said that he couldn’t do that. That is an example of when it is right to step in. You shouldn’t be able to force your views on someone else, or shame them for theirs.
Do you regard living in a democracy as a positive thing? Is there any other form of government which you would prefer?
A democracy is always the best system. However, I think the way democracies work is not always the best way. It is swayed in an unfair. The elections we have just had… the number of votes we had across the country… some people should have had a much better representation. However, I still think democracy is the best system. In the past black people were very badly treated, there were no gay rights… but when people realise something is wrong they genuinely try to amend it by being able to put pressure on politicians, and I think that is right about democracy.
Do you feel a moral obligation to vote?
This time I felt I had to vote indeed. I hadn’t voted before for various reasons, mainly apathy. This time, however, I felt I had to vote and I couldn’t really complain if I hadn’t voted.
Should Parliament have the final say when it comes to making and changing law? Would you like to see the judiciary in a position to strike down legislation?
I don’t know, if I am honest. To be honest, most errors are amended by Parliament itself. Having a system enabling judges to say that a decision made by Parliament was void, then getting back to Parliament and then to the judiciary again, the process could go on forever. However, the current system allows Parliament to change its own mistakes.
Is majoritarian democracy a problem for minorities? Are there some groups in society who find it easier than others to participate?
For some people it is definitely more difficult to participate in the political process. Education is a crucial factor. One of the reasons why I have not voted before is because I didn’t understand the political process and I still don’t. I have so many questions… being in my 30s I don’t know where to find that information… I was never taught in school… never taught at home. There are lots of people like that. The language which is used in the legal system is intimidating and it is designed to attract only a very limited number of people, whilst people like me, who don’t come from an affluent background… the legal terminology is intimidating and off-putting. Costs are also daunting. The system is certainly designed for the elite.
How do you feel about the fact that the House of Lords is not elected?
I went on a tour around the Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament and I asked many questions about which I didn’t have a clue. It is tricky, because on the one hand the public can be easily infuenced by the press so having a group of people elected by the public can be very risky… there could be lots of celebrities and people who wouldn’t bring anything to the table, but equally the appointment process doesn’t guarantee that the people who are in the HofL are the best people either. I don’t really think it is a urgent thing to do… maybe electing some of the members by the public and others being appointed by MPs could be the solution, but again I can’t imagine there would be a huge appetite for that.
How do you feel about the presence of bishops in the House of Lords?
My initial reaction is that bishops of the CofE have no right to be in the HofL. If you are going to have people of that background, you should have people of all other backgrounds. However, in theory, people who are religious leaders are supposed to be very good, moral people. Although they don’t represent everybody else, they may put people in the right direction and they can speak for others who can’t speak. And I can imagine that lots of people who are in the HofL are very successful business people who don’t really speak for those who have less in our society and religious people are more likely to do that. However, there should be some representation for that kind of people, but I am not sure it should be the CofE… I am uncomfortable with it. I am not 100% convinced that they represent everyone they claim to represent, but equally I can’t imagine anyone else doing it any better.
How do you feel about the EU and devolution in Wales and Scotland?
I don’t know if the EU has been a good development. We are very different to the rest of Europe and because the rest of Europe is closer and they don’t have borders, they probably have a much better relationship… whereas I think we are more on our own. I don’t think the EU does us a huge amount of harm, but I think that a lot of financial decisions which were made in Europe are very different from our context… I am afraid I am not very knowledgeable about this particular theme, and I don’t think that all these rules being made by people who don’t know the British culture is a strange thing. To be members of the EU has been positive in terms of trade, but in terms of decisions made by people who don’t know about British culture is a different thing. There are definitely good and bad things, but I don’t know enough about the rules which they make. Sorry for this answer…
To a degree devolution is a good thing. Places like Scotland feel they are not represented in Westminster and Northern Ireland and Wales… that is the way it goes, but I think it is quite easy to go down that road and the UK end up breaking up, because these places want more and more powers. I don’t like the idea of the UK breaking up, but I would like these nations to make their own decisions and to have much more control of them.
Are the mechanisms which we have to hold people to account effective? Are there any changes which you would like to see?
The problem with the free press is that it is still down to the political class. The media are all right, but it depends on the persuasion of the newspaper. And it also depends very much on what is happening elsewhere, because if something horrible happens overseas, it can get overlooked. The court system is fair because we have juries here and I think that is a much better system, but in terms of holding political parties to account is incredibly hard, because in politics everyone tends to criticise and blame their predecessors without taking responsibility for their actions. I think we have probably one of the fairest and most open systems. Probably there are better systems, but I can’t think of any, and it is very good in general.
Do you think that Atheists are proportionately represented in public life?
I think Atheists do much better in GB than in places like America. Over there Politicians almost have to prove that they are religious when they are not, to get votes and popularity. I think being an atheist is almost an advantage. Here in GB people are more open minded and not led by religion. Even if they are religious, they are able to make up their own minds regardless of their religion. I think in GB you can practise and believe what you believe. It doesn’t hinder or gives you any sort of advantage either. You can be whoever you are in GB.
Atheists can bring all believers together, because you don’t look at them in terms of ‘their belief is wrong’. You just know that you don’t believe what they do. It doesn’t bother me what religious people believe, and I can take on board what they think. However, if there were not people like me who are neutral we would be at loggerheads. I can take bits of everyone, but I am not bound by any faith.
Do you think that the judiciary are sufficiently independent?
I trust the judiciary. I think they have to be fair and you have all kinds of courts. So, if you don’t agree with their decisions, you can appeal them. Therefore, I trust the system.
Are there any issues which you felt so strongly about that you have campaigned on?
I think the only thing I have signed up for is this idea of rejecting the absence of a renting cap in London. There is no limited amount and the landlords can charge you as much as they want for rent, but rather than that I haven’t been involved in any campaign.
Have your beliefs been understood and accommodated by public bodies?
Atheists have very different beliefs but I think they are properly catered for by public bodies. Of course, it is not 100%, but I think everyone is reasonably well catered for.
I think Atheists have similar views or morals, but there is no kind of group mentality, only in big issues which really bring people together.
Do you think that the Charlie Hedbo murders and other current political events have had a negative impact on freedom of expression?
Freedom of expression is great and it should be protected, but with the Charlie Hebdo stuff I think they were quite tactless. I think if you pick a fight with a group of people like Muslims with at this particular time are getting a rough time anyway, it was a very stupid move. It doesn’t just offend the people you were aiming to offend, but it offended many more people. There are indeed many Muslims who are not fundamentalists, but they would still be offended by a cartoon taking the piss of God. Fair enough, people may be more tolerant and relaxed if you do it about Christianity and other religions, but it doesn’t mean that it is right and it doesn’t mean that you are not going to offend people. So, yes, freedom of expression is great and they have the right to do so, but common sense plays a part. If you are going to offend people and they have the right to respond (obviously not by shooting), but they have the right to feel offended.
The sort of people who are creative or artistic focus on things which affect them. There is all type of stuff which affects people… So, although it is not a responsibility of artists to highlight issues in ethical debates, I think a lot of people express it and it works this way around.
Do you think that the Rule of Law is applied equally in our society? Are there some groups who receive either preferential or prejudicial treatment?
I can’t think of any examples off the top of my head, but I would say that people receive either prejudicial or preferential treatment. Even with things like phone hacking I think that people like Andy Coulson was in a much better position than ordinary journalists, because he had behind the scenes powers. And in a recent case he was found innocent of seven or eight charges… I think that if you have the money you can get better education and then better justice.
Do you feel that you have a duty to speak for third parties, especially the weak and vulnerable?
I think as a human I have a duty to speak out for the vulnerable and the weak of our society. It has nothing to do with religion or even ethics. If you see bad things are happening you have to do something. There is nothing I am hugely passionate about… there are horrible things like what is happening in Syria, but I wouldn’t really know how to start or what to do… you can campaign, approach the Government… but it is difficult to know what you can effectively do to change things.
There are some laws which I have found ridiculous in my life, but I cannot think of any right now off the top of my head, but I have come across ridiculous laws having to do with the care my dad was due to receive in hospitals, for example. Definitely, there have been times in which under the law of Scotland, as his children we felt pushed out of the process and we didn’t feel we had been sufficiently considered. In the eyes of the law…. We were not allowed to take part, and it is not that we didn’t want to take part or we couldn’t. In fact, possibly to do with guardianship… my dad needed a guardian to be put in place, and until I was named as his permanent guardian, I had to fight for five years to be considered to be my dad’s guardian. Hadn’t it been for my determination, I wouldn’t have achieved it. So, I would certainly change the law to make sure that it is easier for people who care about their relatives to be guardians.
How do you feel about the general increase in police powers over the last 15 years or so?
The increase of the powers of the police has never really affected me. So, I think it would be strange for me to have a strong view on this, but I think they really need increased powers. What people see as a threat now is not what was a threat twenty years ago. I remember the IRA times… there has always been a terrorist threat in the UK. Technologies change a lot… I don’t think it is a bad thing that police have been given powers. Things have changed and you need to move with the times.
Tom grew up in a small farming town in Northern Lancashire. After completing college in Blackpool he began an engineering apprenticeship in the destructive testing of prototype vehicles.
As the economic downturn began to show signs of affecting the automotive industry, he left his apprenticeship and moved to Manchester. Here he began studying Broadcast engineering at Salford University, whilst volunteering at a local radio station.
This experience enabled him to get a job working for the BBC World Service in London as a Studio Manager, which furthered his passion for broadcasting. Tom spent 6 years at the BBC, working a variety of roles including as a broadcast journalist. Since the death of his father in 2014 Tom left the U.K. to go travelling. He currently lives in Sydney, Australia.