INTERVIEW: May defends Tories against charges they are not on side of gays

Home Secretary Theresa May

It has been a successful few days for the Tories in Birmingham.

Despite the economic crisis gripping the world’s finanical markets, party activists at the annual conference have been in an upbeat mood.

When sat down with Theresa May, Shadow Secretary of State for Equalities, to discuss the party’s attitude to gay rights, she said she broadly welcomed the upcoming Equality Bill.

It is expected to form part of the Queen’s Speech, the government’s programme for the forthcoming session of Parliament, which will be presented in December.

It includes proposals for all public bodies to promote equality for gay and lesbian people.

The Bill is intended to be an extension of the current duty on public authorities to actively promote equality into services like fostering, magistrates courts and health clinics and to make their services more accessible to lesbian, bisexual and gay people.

Ms May also talked about the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill.

In May the bulk of the Shadow Cabinet voted in favour of an amendment that would have retained a requirement on doctors to consider the need for a father when assessing women for IVF treatment.

The government argued that the consideration has been used to disciminate against lesbians and single women, and they defeated the amendment, which was proposed by former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith.

Of the 25 members of the Tory frontbench who are MPs, 17 voted in favour of the amendment, including the party leader David Cameron, Liam Fox, William Hague, David Davis, Oliver Letwin and Ms May. What position does the Conservative party position on the upcoming Equality Bill?

Theresa May: Our approach on the equality bill is to say that we think it is right to bring all the legislation together to streamline it.

We think that’s important, particularly to help people who are trying to operate under the bill. There is a lot of confusion about these bits of legislation.

There are some areas where we are waiting to see quite a bit of detail from the government on some tricky areas like age discrimination.

One of the issues was religious and faith issues, about which very little was said.

There is a challenge for legislators around this conflict.

Are we talking about faith schools and a duty to promote gay equality falling on education authorities?

Yes. I think one of the big challenges in this area is when you get two different aspects of anti-discrimination legislation which appear to be in conflict.

The most recent example is the case of the registrar over civil partnerships.

(Click here for stories about the case).

We need to work our way through that.

What we are trying to do is actually stand back on the equality legislation and see if there is a different approach we should be taking, a more positive approach rather than a negative approach, if I can put it like that.

Is the Equality and Human Rights Commission safe under a future Tory government?

Yes. We supported the amalgamation and we had some questions about it. I think a lot of people did. The Commission is finding its feet but its challenge is to ensure that everyone under its remit has got the same sort of interest in the issues it is covering.

A lot a people felt that if we are losing the Equal Opportunities Commission, women would get less of the priority.

I think what is important is that the Commission gives an equality of approach to all equality issues and all the groups under its remit.

There has been controversy about the appointment of the leader of the Evangelical Alliance, Joel Edwards, as a Commissioner. Is that going to be the perennial problem with this Commission, because it has to take account of religious views and those of the gay community?

The important thing is that there is a forum where those views can be discussed and a reasoned approach through those conflicts can be found.

This is why we want to look at, and we imagine the EHRC will be looking at, the approach for the future.

We had this bit by bit anti-discrimination legislation in the UK. The issue is what overall approach will be taken.

Because of some of the ways that the Human Rights Act has been used, one hears all sorts of stories about the way it has been used, in ways that people say are just not common sense, not in this area but around Health and Safety at work and so on, it has got a bad name.

We would replace it with a Bill of Rights. Our job is to make sure we maintain that equality of human rights and we are still committed to this aspect of the agenda.

David Cameron’s change in the party’s position on gay rights has been described as a purely cosmetic exercise to attract votes.

The votes of Tory MPs on aspects of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill tried to deny equal access to fertility treatments on the NHS for lesbians and gay men. This leads many to claim you are still the Section 28 Tories underneath.

No, the party is made up of a large number of people. David Cameron has done a lot to change the party and the party has changed.

The fact that we did support civil partnerships and we took a different stance on the Section 28 issue, all of these issues, the fact that we are a party that is engaging with groups like the EHRC and are willing to support a new equality bill, that we have supported the legislation for positive action for women to get into positions.

All those are real, practical signs that the party is delivering on change, rather than just talking about it or trying to look changed.

Obviously the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill is a free vote issue for people in Parliament.

People’s consciences will take them in different directions. I would have voted differently from some of my colleagues on some of the abortion issues, for example.

I understand that, but the fact that on an issue of conscience, the vast majority of your MPs felt that equal access to fertility treatment was not the way to go, indicates that the leadership may have changed but the rank and file of your 200 MPs are not supportive of the equality agenda.

Well, all I would say about that is that there are individual decisions within the agenda, which people will take particular views on.

What I think is important is that from the party’s point of view the overall direction of the party has changed, the sort of issues that the party is willing to support and look at actively have changed. The approach we have taken in relation to our candidates has changed.

What you can look at is the overall direction of the party. It is not the case that David Cameron is just saying ‘well we will sign up to this, at this point in time, and then go back to something else.’ That is not on the agenda.

What is on the agenda is to change the party, to take a different direction on theses issues overall. That stays.