Friday, 16 March 2007

Sexual Orientation Regulations Approved by MPs

Yesterday morning, the draft Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007 was approved by the Twelfth Delegated Legislation Committee of the House of Commons. Room 11 of the Palace of Westminster (Interestingly, this is the meeting room next door to the one in which a delegation of us was received 2 years ago for LGBT History Month) apparently proved too small for the number of MPs (about 60) attending the meeting, which had been convened at the last minute for some unknown reason.

A transcript of the discussion can be found here and a recording of it here (90min).

Conservative MPs, who attended en force, tried to have the meeting cancelled claiming that a matter of such importance should be discussed by the House rather than an otherwise small and obscure committee. They felt they could not properly represent the views and concerns of the Catholic Church. It turned out, however that the committee procedure had been agreed by Conservative big whigs.

Megg Munn MP, the Minister for Equality, who is responsible for the bill, despite being constantly interrupted, outlined why the regulations are necessary, mentioning how gay couples can still be asked to leave a restaurant for holding hands, how some schools still ignore homophobic bullying or how young homeless people can be asked to leave sheltered accomodation if they come out.

Senior Conservative MP Edward Leigh accused the government of trying to impose "its own moral code on a religious organisation", asking for a compromise for Catholic adoption agencies. The Shadow Equality Minister, Eleanor Laing, however, spoke in favour of the Regulations. She explained that she believed that her "own brand of Christianity", which is Church of Scotland, was based on a principal which was taught to her by her grandmother: one should do unto others as one would have them do unto one.

The Shadow Attorney General (and Lawyer), Dominic Grieve thought that the anti-discrimination measures were and sensible enough and too complex to be dealt with by the committee. He raised the hypothetical case of a web designer with Christian principals being asked to design a website "promoting gay sexual relations", saying that, the way the Regulations are drafted, the designer would be breaking the law should he try to refuse the job.

Later in the Commons, Ian Duncan-Smith raised the matter with the Commons' leader, Jack Straw arguing that MPs "should have an opportunity to properly debate these issues", and adding that MPs could "be in favour of the principal but worry about the impact and still have no answer to many of the issues surrounding adoption and education legislation." Jack Straw said that it would have been difficult to find time for debate in the Chamber.

The draft Regulations, having been approved, will now go the Commons to be rubber stamped. Implementation is planned for 30 April. There is, however, still the possibility of a full vote from the House being forced on the government, should many MPs object to the committee procedure.

Thanks to Today In Parliament for the information.

And here is Ben Summerskill's impression of the meeting just send out in a Stonewall Bulletin (his emphasis):

John Redwood. Iain Duncan Smith. Edward Leigh. Gerald Howarth. Red-faced and furious, they shouted and harrumphed and claimed, improbably, that they hadn't had sufficient opportunity to debate the regulations. Veteran europhobe Bill Cash was so desperate to oppose them that he even claimed they were in breach of the European Communities Act he detests so much.

What was heartwarming, however, was that the regulations were supported solidly by the front benches of all the three main parties. That would have been unthinkable even five years ago.

Those on the political fringes are having to recognise that times are changing. People who believe they've had a centuries-old licence to hate are now having to recognise the dignity and right to fair treatment of other communities that, until now, they've held in near-contempt.

Before we're home and dry we still have one more critical vote, next Wednesday evening in the House of Lords. That means just 120 hours left in which to lobby peers.

To read my (growing number of) previous posts on the subject, please click here or on "Sexual Orientation Regulations" in the right hand menu.

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