Saturday, 17 March 2007

The Tory Position on the Sexual Orientation Regulations

As I reported last night, the Sexual Orientations Regulations were considered by a Committee of 16 MPs on Thursday. Only two of these (both conservative) voted against the Regulations (David Burrowes and Jeremy Wright). During the 90 minutes debate, Megg Munn, the Minister for Equality outlined the content of the regulations before the Front-Bench spokeswomen for both opposition parties were allowed to speak. Eleanor Laing, the Shadow Equality Minister, was speaking for the Conservatives here are extracts of what she said:
[...] I have said that many times, as the Minister knows. It follows from that that we believe that discrimination on any grounds should be prohibited. We in the Conservative party truly believe in the freedom of the individual and in freedom of conscience. We are addressing matters of individual belief and of conscience, so although I support the introduction of the regulations and, if a Division is called, I shall vote for them, I do not require my hon.
Friends to do likewise. I shall, of course, encourage them to vote with me, but I respect their honestly held points of view and they are free to vote as they wish. That is the very essence of the matter; we are discussing tolerance in our society. I would argue that the mark of a civilised society—and, indeed, of a respected religion—is that it tolerates those whom it does not like as well as those whom it likes.

[...] There have been many months of ill-informed debate in the media about what the regulations contain, what they mean and what their consequences will be. In fact, once one has the opportunity to read them properly and to analyse them, one finds that they are pretty reasonable. It is a classic case of fear of the unknown, and it is unfortunate that so much of this morning's debate has been taken up with that fear.

Now that we know what is in the regulations, it is not difficult to support them. However, because there has been so much misinformation, I must ask the Minister to help with a few more points in addition to those that she has already clarified. For example, surely there is no intention—nor should it be a consequence of the regulations—that a minister of religion should be required to perform a civil partnership ceremony.

To save time, the Minister indicates that the answer is no, of course that will not be required. Likewise, surely there is no intention, and nor should it be a consequence of the regulations, that a school teacher should be required to give his or her pupils books about homosexuality.

Again, the Minister has indicated that the answer is that there is no such intention. I simply want to illustrate the fact that there has been much misinformation. Let us get that out of the way and talk about what the regulations actually mean.

There are many intricate points that I should like to discuss, but in order to allow others to make proper speeches rather than interventions, I shall not take up much more of the Committee's time. The Minister has already confirmed that matters relating to insurance will be time-limited. Will she now confirm by what means that time limit will be enforced, and how we can monitor it? Likewise, there is enormous concern about the position of adoption agencies, particularly Catholic adoption agencies, which do such excellent and important work.

[...] People might be misled into thinking that these regulations are about adoption. They are not. The position of Catholic adoption agencies is a very small element of the debate, and I want to concentrate on the other 99 per cent. of what the regulations will mean to people throughout the United Kingdom. There is great concern about adoption agencies. I want the transition period, which the Government have introduced by means of the regulations, and the duty to refer, to work.

Will the Minister undertake to report to the House on how the exemption and the duty to refer are working, so that adoption agencies can continue their good work, but there is no discrimination?

As to the essence of the balance we are discussing, I have been approached by many groups who are concerned about this measure and every one has a valid point; but it has made me think about how we can balance the honest right of someone who holds a particular religious viewpoint with those of other groups in society. How will we achieve peace and harmony in our society if we do not say to people, "Live and let live, and respect those who are different from you"?

I have thought about my own brand of Christianity. It is a simple, Church of Scotland brand based on what I believe, which is what my grandmother taught me: "You should do unto others as you would have them do unto you". It is a very simple outlook on life and there is no place in it for discrimination. However, I hope that all sides of the argument will be heard this morning.

[...]

Marriage is perhaps the best way, but it does not mean that there are not other ways of bringing up a child that are equally valid and give a child an equally good start in life. That is the point of this proposal; it is about balance, not about extremes. It is not about taking an entrenched point of view; it is about recognising that in our society today people live in all sorts of different ways. Instead of trying to discriminate against people who are different from us, we should be embracing everyone in our society and living peacefully together.

[...]

I recognise that there is potentially a clash of opinion between one group of people and another, each of whom argues that the law should protect them and allow them freely to practise on one hand their sexual orientation, and on the other hand their religious belief. It is for Parliament to balance the rights and responsibilities of one group of people with those of another, and that is the difficult task before us. The legislation is not perfect. It could have been better, but on balance I shall choose the lesser of two evils and support it.

In an article from 24 January about such issues, the Archbishop of Canterbury said: “The rights of conscience cannot be made subject to legislation, however well meaning.”

He is of course absolutely right. However, the legislation—now that we know what is in it—does not do what the archbishop feared that it might do. That is the important point that we must reflect on when considering whether to pass the regulations. No one will be required to change or relinquish their conscience or beliefs as a result of the regulations; but each of us will be required to moderate our actions and behaviour in order to accommodate those who are different from ourselves. That is a good principle on which to make legislation and I hope that most hon. Members will support the regulations.
This was reinforced by John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con), who said:
The hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe [Clive Betts (Lab)] very reasonably challenged Conservative Members to say where they stood on this matter. If there is any doubt, I would like to take the opportunity. I put it to the hon. Member for Solihull [Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD)] that as a result of widespread discrimination, too many gay, lesbian and bisexual people in this country have suffered too much for too long and with too little done about it. I put it to her that in human terms—that is the most important point in this debate—the regulations will be welcomed by millions of gay, lesbian and bisexual people as a force for liberation and a recognition that in a modern civilised society they should enjoy equality before the law.

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

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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