The Independent View | Peter Tatchell writes… Lib Dems should stick to their principles and urge Lynne not to renege on equality pledge

Bravo to the Liberal Democrat party conference. Two years ago, party members voted overwhelmingly to end the twin legal bans on same-sex civil marriages and opposite-sex civil partnerships. They committed a future Lib Dem government to scrap sexual orientation discrimination in marriage and partnership law. Well done. Thank you

Sadly, the Lib Dem Equality Minister, Lynne Featherstone, apparently with the support of the Lib Dem Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, is now actively backing discrimination. She plans to keep unequal laws, contrary to the Lib Dem’s election pledges.

Specifically, Lynne is vowing to retain the prohibition on heterosexual civil partnerships and on religious same-sex marriages by faith organisations that want to conduct them. This is in direct defiance of what her party members voted for: equality.

Nick Clegg has not dissented from her stance. We can only assume that he endorses it.

Lynne is lovely. I like her as a person. However, she has announced a long and unjustified delay in the government’s promised consultation on civil marriage and civil partnership; pre-empting the consultation findings by ruling out straight and religious equality.

She said at the start of this year that the consultation would begin in June. Then she postponed it until October. Now it has been put off until March next year. Why can’t the consultation start now? Despite all our requests, Lynne has failed to explain why this delay is necessary.

I am not persuaded that there needs to be any consultation at all. The ban on same-sex marriage is homophobic discrimination and should therefore be repealed immediately.

If black or Jewish people had been banned from marriage, the government would act swiftly to ensure marriage equality. There would be no long drawn out consultation period. There would be no appeasement of racists and anti-Semites. Why the double standards?

No other government legislation is being subjected to such prolonged consultation and repeated postponements.

The Scottish government has not hesitated. It’s consultation on marriage and partnership equality is already underway. Why is the UK Equality Minister dragging her feet and delaying her consultation until next spring? It doesn’t make sense.

The Westminster government has promised to legislate marriage equality before the date of the next election, due by May 2015 at the latest. However, the delayed consultation could result in the measure not completing its parliamentary progress in time. Likely resistance by the House of Lords might result in its being timed out. Is this deliberate?

Ending sexual orientation discrimination in marriage law is not only the right thing to do,
it has majority public support. There is, therefore, no reason for the government to delay in bringing forward legislation to end this legal iniquity.

Nearly two-thirds of the public support marriage equality. According to a 2009 Populus opinion poll, 61% of the public say that lesbian and gay couples should be allowed by law to get married:

Lynne Featherstone’s gay marriage consultation announcement looks like an attempt to head off the Equal Love – www.equallove.org.uklegal case in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

In February, four gay couples and four heterosexual couples filed an application in the ECHR to overturn sexual orientation discrimination in civil marriage and civil partnership law.

Speaking as the appeal coordinator, I can say we are quietly confident that we will win the case – eventually (an ECHR ruling can take four years).

The current UK ban on straight couples having a civil partnership is clear discrimination. Lynne’s commitment to maintain this inequality is both surprising and shocking. It is wrong for her to exclude in advance any discussion about opening up civil partnerships to opposite-sex couples.

I stand for equality and this includes equality for straight people too. It would be wrong for the LGBT community to demand equal rights for ourselves and then ignore or accept the denial of equality to heterosexual people. In a democracy we should all be equal before the law.

There are many heterosexuals who would like a civil partnership. To deny them this option is very unfair – and it is illegal under human rights law. How can a Lib Dem Equality Minister support inequality?

The Netherlands has an equivalent to civil partnerships. Called registered partnerships, they are open to both same-sex and opposite-sex couples. The vast majority of Dutch civil partnerships are heterosexual ones. They are hugely popular and would be equally popular in the UK, if the government allowed straight couples to have them. To deny British heterosexuals the option of a civil partnership is profoundly wrong and unjust.

This is bad enough. However, Lynne has also ruled that her consultation will not consider the option of ending the ban on religious marriages for lesbian and gay couples, even though some faith organisations – such as the Quakers, Unitarians and Liberal Jews – have requested that they should be allowed to marry same-sex partners. Lynne says no. She says the ban must stay. This is a violation of religious freedom. While no religious body should be forced to perform same-sex marriages, those that support gay marriage should not be barred by law from doing so.

I appeal to Lynne – and Nick Clegg – to rethink this ill-considered consultation timetable and its pro-discrimination parameters – to both ensure non-discrimination and to avoid an embarrassing defeat in the European Court of Human Rights.

It is outrageous that the Equality Minister wants to maintain the unequal, discriminatory laws that bar gay religious marriages and opposite-sex civil partnerships. Her stance is not compatible with her professed Liberal Democrat values or with the wishes of the vast majority of Lib Dem party members.

If you share my concerns, I urge you to email Lynne Featherstone via her Equality Office senior officials, Emma Reed and Lucy Phipps at [email protected]

Your help could ensure a much needed rethink. Thank you.

• To sign the Equal Love petition: www.equallove.org.uk. For more information about Peter Tatchell’s human rights campaigns and to make a donation: www.petertatchell.net.

* Peter Tatchell is an international human rights campaigner. In 2009, he won LibDemVoice’s annual ‘Liberal of the Year‘ award which recognises liberals beyond the Lib Dems for their contributions to public life.

The Independent View is a slot reserved for writers from beyond the Lib Dems to write on matters the site’s editors believe will be of interest to our readers.

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18 Comments

  • David Pollard 4th Dec '11 - 12:43pm

    Sorry guys, I don’t know what the argument is about. What IS the difference between a civil partnership and a marriage? I thought in law they carried the same rights and a rose by any other name is just as sweet.

  • Well said Peter.

  • I commend Peter’s continuing efforts to end discrimination, but hope he’ll be writing similar articles for LabourList and ConservativeHome rather than expecting a party with 57 MPs to overcome centuries of ingrained prejudice (not to mention many vocal religious groups) on our own.

    I don’t actually disagree with much of the substance of Peter’s article and I too will be very disappointed if we don’t get the legislation through in this parliament. But knowing how strongly both Lynne and Nick feel about this issue I really object to the unspoken implication that they’re letting this slide because they’re just not bothered.

  • David Pollard 4th Dec '11 - 8:58pm

    @Dave Page – If the differences are only irrelevant details, then why do anything? If you are unable to summarise your argument then why should I support you? If a church comes up with a counter argument, how do I respond? So far, to me this issue is just about campaigning for campaigning’s sake.

  • David P: would you be happy if we had a separate legal recognition of inter-race marriages as long as the rights and responsibilities were the same? Even though the legal differences are largely symbolic it goes rather against the universal rule of law to have separate recognition for different individuals’ commitment to each other, and leaves the option open to revoke or alter it later. For example, a government could decide it wanted to give a small tax break to conventionally married couples, but not to civilly partnered ones.

    A practical consideration is that any married or civilly partnered individual seeking to legally change their sex is forced to annul their marriage/partnership prior to doing so.

    Another issue is that religious music and language is banned from any civil partnership ceremony.

    Lots of gay individuals, myself included, would prefer a marriage that is identical in law to heterosexual marriage. Lots of gay individuals would like religious ceremonies. Lots of heterosexual couples would like to have the option to have their relationship recognised without the “baggage” of marriage attached. The law currently denies us all of the above. This is pretty far from campaigning for campaigning’s sake.

  • To add to Ed’s points, I think (though not 100% certain) that there are also some differences in private sector pension entitlements for a bereaved spouse than for a civil partner.

    But even if there were no practical implications, the current division between the two institutions is unacceptable. I believe Nick Clegg was once asked in an interview why he wanted to bring in full gay marriage in spite of civil partnerships giving gay couples most of the same rights he replied that what you call something is important and I agree – “separate but equal” is never true equality.

    I would never get married under the current situation because I wouldn’t want to enter an institution from which certain couples are unjustifiably barred. I’d prefer a civil partnership in any case because it’s free of the (IMO) negative connotations of marriage, but of course, being of opposite genders, my partner and I are barred from that institution.

  • Grammar Police 5th Dec '11 - 8:21am

    Er, Peter, this is a re-hash of your September Guardian article, right?

    You complained in that article that the plans in the consultation did not go far enough, yet you are also complaining that the consultation has been delayed and you don’t know why. Have you ever thought that perhaps the battle is being fought in Government about this, and that’s the reason for the delay?

    Perhaps you could explain how the delay “looks like an attempt to head off the Equal Love case”? Perhaps, shock horror, the reason for the delay is that having the judgment would strengthen Lynne’s hand, it would be pointless to consult on plans which ultimately turn out to be illegal.

    Personally I’m of the view that civil partnerships legislation should be repealed if we manage to bring in equal rights to civil marriage.

    As for religious marriage, I agree that there should be no bar for those religions that are happy to allow same-sex marriage (again, personally I would completely ‘divorce’ religious marriage from the legal elements of marriage).

  • The consultation on Equal Marriage in Scotland ends on 9th December. Submissions are being delivered by interested parties and groups to the Scottish Parliament on Wednesday 7th in time for the ending of the consultation period.

    I am thankful to be living in Scotland – we are way ahead on this and can look forward to a much earlier decision.

    I have to say that I am surprised by this “U” turn on the part of the Westminster MPs who have responsibility for moving forward the consultation on Equal Marriage in England and Wales. This was passed by Members at the Conference – why the change now? This was an Election pledge – surely it has to be adhered to.

    Equality means just that – equality for all people. Are we now going to be seen as a Party which says “We are all equal, but some are more equal than others”?

  • Craig Brown 5th Dec '11 - 12:07pm

    At the Haringey Lib Dem’s AGM last month, Lynne was asked ‘what has been your best moment since becoming a government minister’ and she replied, without hesitation, that it was announcing her intention to bring in equal gay marriage at the last conference. I do not believe for one moment that she, personally, has made any ‘U turns’ on this issue.
    The libdems aren’t the people who need to be lobbied, here. Pressure should be put on our coalition partners. If there’s anyone in this debate who will want to put up barriers against equal gay marriage, it’s them.

  • Craig Brown is right – but also pressure needs to be put on Labour as well as the Tories. Remember how the block of Labour MPs against equality prevented equalising the age of consent back in 1994.

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