The difficulty of balancing our freedoms

Boris Johnson has caused controversy over his comments on the burqa.
Boris Johnson has caused controversy over his comments on the burqa.

Perhaps exacerbated by ‘silly season’, there has been quite the furore over a column written by Boris Johnson.

From what I have seen of the reaction on social media, few people have read the article itself, which argues against a ban on the burqa, as has been introduced in some other EU countries.

Boris has written that he believes the Arab-originating form of dress the niqab (the veil with just the eyes uncovered) and the burqa (full face covering) look silly, and he has used perhaps insensitive language to convey that view.

But he argues that it would be illiberal and un-British to ban items of clothing simply because we may not like them. I agree with him.

I feel fortunate to live in the UK, where we can dress as we like, and that women are free to dress as they wish, without coercion. In terms of the niqab and the burqa, if women are making a free choice to wear it, I entirely support their right to wear what they want, free from harassment.

It sometimes feels like a difficult balance to support freedom of expression (to wear what one wishes) and of speech (to criticise that decision). It can be difficult to ensure that we remain respectful of people’s individual choices and religions whilst ensuring we are free to express our views, and to mock people and religions where appropriate.

In short, women in the UK are free to wear what they wish, Boris Johnson is free to be insensitive about those choices, and we are all free to form our own opinions of him as a result.

In terms of the Conservative Party’s investigation, I am not party to the process, but I know there is a duty to look into all complaints received.

Clearly, Boris could have made his case without resorting to insulting language, but no one has the right not to be offended – a legal protection fought for by our Prime Minister when she was Home Secretary, and one I hope she will continue to defend.

Moving on to policy, I am delighted the Government has published its radical 25-year environmental strategy, which will see the UK lead the way in protecting our environment.

Banning microbeads, doubling littering fines, clamping down on single-use plastics, cutting emissions, introducing CCTV into slaughterhouses, toughening animal cruelty sentences and banning ivory sales are some of the measures we are taking to make our nation cleaner and greener.

There are concerns in our Northumbrian Piper community that it could be affected by the Ivory Bill, despite the WWF being clear that those sorts of organisations ought to be exempt. I was delighted when ministers accepted my calls to protect our pipes and will continue to work with the Government to ensure we can balance the importance of local traditions with the need to protect elephants.

Our marine environment is also of critical importance, and I have worked with the Government and the RSPB to include the eider duck in our Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ), which runs from Coquet Island to St Mary’s Lighthouse, and protects our unique coastline.

The eider duck had been left out of the MCZ, causing concern to all those locally who work with our native species. They are now included so their feeding and breeding grounds are protected.

Fans of our coastline will appreciate our incredible unspoilt sand dunes, which provide precious habitat to wildlife. I have been in discussions with Natural England to ensure Northumberland’s dunes are included in a new programme to protect them for the future.

On a personal note, many of you know that John and I have amicably, but sadly decided to separate, and I wanted to thank all of you for your very kind messages. Our total priority is to minimise the difficulties for our children so thank you for allowing us to handle it privately as a family.