Ruth Kelly’s birthday marred by gay rights row

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Tony Blair thought his cabinet reshuffle would end the media’s obsession with his minister’s private lives and would mean he could get back to politics, but thanks to research by, the Prime Minister’s judgement has yet again been called into question.

Gay groups, MPs and the media have this week questioned the wisdom of appointing Ruth Kelly as Minister for Women and Equality.

The row was sparked after it was revealed she has never voted for gay rights and is a member of a controversial Christian group, Opus Dei, which views homosexuality as a sin.

A investigation into the 39-year-old’s voting record discovered that on 22nd June 1998, she was absent from the Crime and Disorder Bill to reduce the age of consent, as she was on the 1st March 1999 and the 10th February when the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill sought to achieve the same goal (the first having been rejected by the Lords).

On the 24th October 2001, she was absent from the voting on the Relationships (Civil Registration) motion that was the catalyst for introducing the Civil Partnerships bill in Parliament.

On the 29th October 2001, she was absent from the third reading of the Adoption and Children Bill (Programme), to allow gay couples to adopt, as she was on further votes on the same subject on 16th May 2002, 20th May 2002 and the 4th November 2002. On the 10th March 2003, she was absent from the vote to repeal section 28 which banned local authorities from promoting homosexuality as a valid lifestyle.

On the 12th October 2004, she was absent from the vote on the Civil Partnerships Bill, as she was on the 9th November 2004.

Speaking on ITV News last night, editor, Benjamin Cohen asked: “Will she be voting for the legislation that her department is going to be bringing forward?” Adding: “She has to vote for these, she has to turn up which she hasn’t done before

Responding to whether Ms Kelly is entitled to hold her own personal religious views, Mr Cohen added: “I completely believe that Ruth Kelly should be allowed to have her own personal religious beliefs but the question is ‘how will this impact her role as Minister for Women and Equality.'”

The Minister for Women and Equality, who celebrated her birthday in controversial circumstances yesterday, appeared on BBC Radio5 Live yesterday amid a media frenzy which has seen follow ups on the row in the Times, BBC News, Daily Mail, the Guardian, the Telegraph and the front page of the Independent.

The presenter, Nicky Campbell asked her three times if she viewed homosexual acts as sin, Ms Kelly failed to give a clear answer, she said: “I don’t think its right for politicians to start making moral judgments about people, it’s the last thing I want to do.

“The questions is what are my political views and as a politician I think everyone should be free of discrimination.

“Is it possible to be a Catholic and hold a portfolio in government, the answer is emphatically yes. I am responsible for holding to the collective cabinet view on these matters but I firmly believe in equality and that everyone should be free of discrimination and I will fight to the end to make sure that’s the case.”

She added, “Everybody is entitled to express their views in free votes on matters of conscience and I’ve always made clear that as a member of parliament I’ve cast my vote according to conscience but I’m also a member of the government its my duty to see through equality and I’m passionate to see there is no discrimination.”

In a poll of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) readers of the gay news website, over the last weekend, 93% of the sample of 344 asked, agreed with the statement “Tony Blair should reconsider appointing Ruth Kelly as Minister for Women and Equality.”

Following her first full day as Minister for Women and Equality, Ms Kelly told “People should be allowed to decide how they live their lives. I believe in a tolerant, diverse, multicultural society where everyone is protected from discrimination.

“I will fight discrimination, whether it be on the grounds of race, gender, disability or sexual orientation.”

Downing Street immediately defended Ms Kelly yesterday. The Prime Minister’s spokesman, said: “She repeatedly said she supported the decisions taken by the Government in this area. She repeatedly said she is totally opposed to discrimination of any kind whatsoever. She pointed out she pushed the equality agenda when she was at the Cabinet Office.”

Speaking to following the appointment of Ms Kelly, the veteran Labour MP for Crewe and Nantwich and chairman of the Transport select committee, Gwyneth Dunwoody said: “I’m glad the Prime Minister has a sense of humour when it comes to appointing a Minister for Women and Equality and I look forward to developments with great interest.” Adding: “I think that the Prime Minister has an interesting approach to the creation of a cabinet.”

Katie Hanson, a Hackney Labour councillor and chairperson of the Labour Campaign for Gay and Lesbian Rights told “Obviously Ms Kelly’s voting record is a cause for concern and we will be watching carefully for any tonal change in policy.

“As we near completion of the consultation on goods and services, and put the finishing touches to the LCGLR position, we hope to continue the serious cordial relationship we have enjoyed with the likes of Alan Johnson.”

Evan Harris, Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon told “It doesn’t help that the cabinet sponsor for gay rights who through her religious views does not support full equality. To have someone who is a keen supporter is important as most of these issues are free votes that need Parliamentary time to succeed.

“I have no idea if the Prime Minister considered the implications for the gay community of appointing someone like Ms Kelly to this sensitive post. What I do know is that he always considers the DailyMail view of life before making a decision.”

Lorely Burt, the Liberal Democrats spokeswoman on equality, said: “How can the gay community trust legislation to be properly implemented when Ruth Kelly has such an ambiguous record on gay rights?

“Ruth Kelly urgently needs to come clean about whether she agrees with her own department’s policies on equality issues. Blair’s reshuffle tried to reduce bad headlines but has so far only succeeded in shifting trouble from one department to another.”

Ben Summerskill, the Chief Executive of the gay rights group Stonewall said that Ms Kelly’s religious views were “a private matter” but stated that the group “require government ministers to deliver policies without fear or favour.”

Glenda Jackson, MP for Hampstead and Highgate defended Ms Kelly’s religious views adding: “Equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people is centrally entrenched in government policy.”

Peter Tatchell, the gay rights campaigner, told “Her appointment suggests the Government does not take lesbian and gay rights seriously. Tony Blair would never appoint someone to a race-equality post who had a lukewarm record of opposing racism.”