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I’m sorry but won’t quit, says councillor
Published 10/02/14

HENLEY town councillor David Silvester has apologised for upsetting the gay community after blaming the floods on the same-sex marriage laws.

But he refused to resign at an extraordinary meeting of the town council on Tuesday called to discuss his comments.

About 40 people attended the meeting at the town hall and more than a dozen members of the public spoke, including his wife Irene. There was a small protest outside.

Councillor Silvester, 73, who was expelled by UKIP previous day, said he had not intended to embarrass the council or his party when he made his comments in a letter to the Henley Standard last month. “Neither was it my intention to insult the gay community and I certainly apologise to them if personal insult has been their perception,” he said. “Indeed, a number of them have been my friends or acquaintances over the years.”

Cllr Silvester, who resigned from the Conservatives over the same issue a year ago, insisted that his letter was directed at the Government for trying to “change the nature and definition of marriage from that recorded in the national textbook, the Holy Bible”.

He said: “I have read that I am barmy to connect this breach with the weather. If so, I am in good company.”

A member of Henley Baptist Church, he pointed out that senior Anglican bishops had made similar claims in the past.

Cllr Silvester, whose home in Luker Avenue was egged last week, said he believed in free speech, although he would be more cautious in anything he wrote in future.

He said he had made his “democratic protest by writing in the open forum of newspapers such as the Henley Standard — and not, incidentally, by throwing eggs at pensioners’ houses”.

Cllr Silvester added: “I have had enormous support from all over the country and from overseas and I have the confidence to stand by every word I wrote in my letter.”

He listed his voluntary roles in the community, including working for Oxfam, Henley Toy Library, the Torch Trust for the Blind, Phyllis Court Tennis Club, Henley Over-60s Club and a weekly church group for elderly people.

He said he had regularly attended council meetings since being elected in 2011 and also contributed to projects including Townlands Hospital and the Henley Skate Park Initiative.

Cllr Silvester also responded to an online petition calling on him to resign which has gathered 25,000 signatures.

He said: “I reject this petition and I do so on the basis that I was elected for four years and I intend to stay for four years.

“I would also mention the precedent of when we made a petition to David Cameron to stop same-sex marriage —600,000 of us were just swept aside without a thought.”

Petition organiser Sarah Butcher, 40, of Belle Vue Road, Henley, said: “I think the amount of signatures and comments on the petition shows that we’re a democratic society and outweighs the number of votes Cllr Silvester has received to actually get to this position.

“There’s a large gay community in Henley, which he represents to one degree or another, and they have been incredibly upset and hurt by his comments, as well as their family and friends.”

Mrs Butcher, who is married with two children, told Cllr Silvester: “While I agree that you have made an awful lot of effort and done some great stuff in Henley, the majority no longer wants you to represent us.”

Former mayor David Smewing, of St Mark’s Road, said: “I feel Cllr Silvester should be supported rather than attacked for what he said because…. every councillor should have the right to put his point of view forward.

“There should be no fear or favour and if any particular point of view is shouted down, that is wrong.”

Adrian Denning, of Mount View Court, said: “Everyone has a right to their opinion in this country and it’s very, very dangerous if we start saying that’s not the case and people get reprimanded.”

Lucie Thaxter, of Harpsden Road, was applauded after saying that if someone in authority expressed views “as hateful to an ethnic community as Cllr Silvester did to the gay community, we wouldn’t be having this discussion here today”. John Street, of Church Street, said the Government’s decision to legalise gay marriage was “shameful and the wrong thing to do”.

Doreen Hughes said Cllr Silvester was “just stating Old Testament scripture”.

Mrs Silvester said the couple used to own a caravan on a site run by a lesbian couple whom they “loved and respected”.

“It was not anything to do with individuals,” she said. “It was all to do with the fact that the word of God said marriage is for man and woman.”

Rachel Levy, from Benson, said she was “shocked” by some people’s views.

She said: “They assume that just because this is written in religion that it makes it okay for them to attack a group in society. I think that’s completely wrong.

“David Silvester should be ashamed of what he said. Such ludicrous religious extremism should not have any place in public office.”

Vanessa Hoare, from Nettlebed, said: “I don’t think, judging from the comments he has made, that he’s capable of making an impartial, objective decision in Henley’s best interests.”

Councillor Jeni Wood said two world wars had been fought for freedom of speech, adding: “Everyone is allowed to have an opinion and speak in this country. We don’t know how lucky we are.”

Councillor David Nimmo Smith said: “While I consider the councillor to be misguided, I will defend his right to express his views.

“I know that he has upset a whole section of society, including many people I know, but that’s for him and his conscience to deal with.”

Councillor Kellie Hinton said she wanted to disassociate herself from Cllr Silvester’s views but defended his right to speak freely.

She said it was “absolutely disgusting” what he and his wife had gone through for exercising his right to free speech.

Councillor Sam Evans said her sister was gay and had endured homophobic abuse.

“Most fear, and sometimes hatred, comes from things not understood,” she said. “I absolutely want to distance myself from views such as that.

“There’s a big difference between being homophobic and blaming a section of our community for the weather, which has caused destruction to people’s livelihoods and homes.

“To say that if a section of our community chooses to get married is responsible for that is very, very close to crossing that very thin line between expressing opinions and inciting hatred.”

Councillor Will Hamilton claimed a member of the council’s staff had been reduced to tears by the comments, adding: “I would strongly suggest that Cllr Silvester considers his position and apologises to those people he has offended.”

Councillor Joan Bland said: “To mention moral degeneration for the way a person is born is wrong and I do not see how that can be Christian.”

Councillor Ian Reissmann said Cllr Silvester’s comments “strayed too close to the line” but added: “In a democracy, David cannot and should not be regarded as unfit for public office because of his views. This would be wrong and it’s also contrary to the law. It’s for electors to choose their representatives at election time.”

Mayor Stefan Gawrysiak said: “I do not agree with Cllr Silvester’s views. We must live in a tolerant society that allows people of whatever race, colour and gender orientation to live their lives in whichever way they want.”

The 13 members of the council agreed unanimously that Cllr Silvester’s comments were his personal views and not those of the council. The council has no powers to take any disciplinary action but it has passed 12 complaints on to South Oxfordshire District Council’s monitoring officer, who will decide whether he should be investigated for a possible breach of the councillors’ code of conduct.

Announcing Cllr Silvester’s expulsion, a UKIP spokeswoman said: “Because he was an elected official representing UKIP, we take the view that his expression of views was unacceptable and in order to distance UKIP from those views permanently and irrevocably, we have no choice but to expel Mr Silvester.”

Cllr Silvester will now stand as an independent councillor until next year’s council elections.

In his letter, which was published on January 17, Cllr Silvester said that since the passage of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act, Britain had been “beset by serious storms and floods”.

He accused Prime Minister David Cameron of “arrogantly acting against the gospel” by supporting the new law.

• What do you think? Write to: Letters, Henley Standard, Caxton House, 1 Station Road, Henley, RG9 1AD or email letters@henleystandard.co.uk

Published 10/02/14

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