Exclusive: Gordon Brown answers PinkNews readers’ questions on gay issues

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PinkNews exclusive
As part of our election coverage, we’ve given our readers the chance to put their questions to the three party leaders – Gordon Brown, Nick Clegg and David Cameron.

Prime minister Mr Brown is the last of the three party leaders to answer questions.

As with the other two leaders, the majority of questions we received asked whether Mr Brown would commit to changing the law to give gay couples full same-sex marriage.

Mr Brown would not support this, instead telling PinkNews readers that the provision of marriage is “intimately bound up with questions of religious freedom”.

He also claimed the gay community should “fear” a Tory government and said a vote for the Liberal Democrats would make a Conservative government more likely.

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg has stated that he supports extending the right of marriage to same-sex couples. The government has said that it has no intention of legalising gay marriage in the UK. Why should the gay community choose to back Labour over the Liberal Democrats? Separate but equal is not good enough. Keiran Flynn

Labour has a record of delivery. It’s easy to promise all things to all people when in opposition – but Labour has been doing the hard work of delivering equality for the last 13 years, and we have faced down large, well-organised and vociferous opposition to big changes like an equal age of consent, gay adoption, lesbian fertility rights and abolishing Section 28. Other parties might talk about equality, but it’s Labour that has been in hand to hand combat to drive these changes through the Commons and the Lords. We’re prepared to do more too – and our manifesto contains commitments to take further action on homophobic bullying and to reverse the so-called ‘Waddington amendment’ which Tories in the Lords pushed when we were legislating to protect people from incitement to homophobic hate. The Tories added a ‘freedom of speech’ clause that means prosecutors would have to discharge a higher burden of proof for homophobic incitement than any other hate crime, and Labour are determined to see that changed. So I think Labour have both a record and future offer that we can be proud of, and the one thing we should all fear is a return to the Tory days. And the reality is, a vote for the Liberal Democrats just makes a Tory government more likely.

In response to Downing St online petitions to introduce same-sex marriage, it was stated that the “government has no plans to introduce same-sex marriage”, because it has to “balance the right to live free from prejudice and discrimination with the right to freedom of speech and religion”. In what ways does same-sex marriage affect freedom of speech and religion? Andrew Archer

At the moment there’s a distinction drawn between civil and religious unions, and when civil partnerships were being introduced they took the same form as a civil union which a heterosexual couple would have. We later made it illegal to discriminate on partnership status – so it is illegal to treat someone in a civil partnership different to a married person. That makes no practical difference in terms of rights and responsibilities, but does recognise that religious groups have the right to a certain degree of self-organisation on questions that are theologically important to them, including on the question of religiously-sanctioned marriage. So the provision of ‘marriage’ as opposed to the provision of same-sex or heterosexual civil unions, is intimately bound up with questions of religious freedom.

The Equality Act enshrines the right of religious organisations to legally discriminate against homosexuals by refusing employment. Will you introduce legislation to either correct this or to allow homosexuals to discriminate against people of faith by also refusing employment? Is it right that one group’s rights are prioritised over another’s? Paul Gibbons

I don’t think that’s a fair characterisation of the Act – what it actually does is leave the status quo unchanged, and allow religious organisations to have a very small number and very specific type of job which fall outside the scope of the normal equalities employment legislation. For example we are not going to force the Catholic Church to have female or married priests, nor Jewish synagogues to have people leading worship who aren’t Jewish. In much the same way, the employment rights of LGBT applicants will be exactly the same as any other applicant for the vast majority of jobs in the vast majority of religious organisations.

As you know, we did seek to tighten the law still further during the passage of the Bill but we were unable to get agreement from the Tory Lords, and until there is substantial Lords reform, as Labour are promising, the same outcome is likely to happen if this issue is revisited.

Do you think that any MP who makes a homophobic comment should be suspended from parliament? I think this would lead to more trust in MPs. Andrew

MPs’ behaviour is covered by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, and it’s important that it stays genuinely independent, so it’s not for me to say when MPs should or shouldn’t be suspended. But MPs are also subject to the discipline procedures of their own parties, and I think all parties should move quickly to stamp out any homophobia among their candidates and MPs. It’s still beyond me why David Cameron has kept Chris Grayling on as shadow Home Secretary even though it’s been revealed he thinks it’s ok for a B&B owner to turn a gay couple away, and for one of his shadow defence ministers, Julian Lewis, to say that being gay is as dangerous as serving on the front line. It’s those sort of comments that prove the Conservatives haven’t really changed.

What do you say to those who claim that Labour are not as LGBT friendly as they say they are and the LGBT community only got the rights we have now because Europe forced the government into acting? Angie

The facts just don’t bear that out. So many of the legal rights the LGBT community now enjoy in Britain have gone well beyond anything required by EU membership (as we know from the experience of LGBT people in Eastern Europe for example). Europe didn’t force us into action on civil partnerships, inheritance rights, goods and services protection, gay adoption, employment protection, the Gender Recognition Act, the age of consent, scrapping Section 28 or introducing new fertility rights for LB women. In fact, it would be fairer to say that Labour has been leading Europe than the other way around. Let’s never forget that while the Tories were blocking the Treaty of Amsterdam, which gave the EC the legal base to take action to combat discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, Labour signed it in May 1997 as one of its first acts and we are still one of only a handful of countries in the world with the promotion of LGBT rights as a formal core plank of our foreign policy. That’s why we have opened up our Embassies for civil partnerships, proudly flown the rainbow flag in European capitals where people need our solidarity during the Pride season and launched in the UN the campaign for the Universal Decriminalisation of Homosexuality. Chris Bryant is also leading a Europe-wide campaign to get other countries to recognise civil partnerships conducted in Britain for all legal purposes – Jack Straw has even convinced the French parliament to change the law to recognise our civil partnerships on par with French marriage, and our Labour MEPs have consistently been at the forefront of this debate in the European parliament.

Which individual alive today in the UK do you think has done the most to further gay rights? Laura Davies

I think the whole gay rights movement deserves the credit – because I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movement for social change achieve so much so quickly. The Labour government has consistently outpaced public opinion on these questions, but we simply wouldn’t have been able to do it without out and proud activists who have changed minds, changed policies and changed the world. If I had to name individuals I’d single out three I particularly admire: Angela Mason, who was a superb Stonewall director and really shook things up when she worked in government, Michael Cashman, who was prepared to endure tabloid hounding to bring gay relationships into millions of British living rooms through his role in EastEnders, and Chris Smith, who proved 1984 that you can change the world with a single sentence: “I’m Chris Smith, I’m the MP for Islington South and Finsbury and I’m gay”.

What will you do to reduce the waiting times for gender identity clinics in the UK? With the number of trans people coming forward for medical intervention doubling every five years, the current waiting times (regularly greater than six months) are only going to increase if action is not taken. Many trans people develop depression and attempt to take their own lives because of long waiting times before accessing treatment. Sam Frye

I understand how difficult this process can be for people who are seeking medical intervention. The level of discrimination that the trans community has suffered is unacceptable which is why we introduced the Gender Recognition Act to give people the support they deserve. We are doing all we can, through the Hate Crime Action plan and our Equalities Bill to deliver true equality.

People seeking this important medical treatment will benefit from Labour’s plans to increase investment in frontline NHS services which will reduce waiting times across the board.

Will Labour repeal the so-called ‘homosexual panic defence’ whereby a murderer can avoid a murder conviction if he/she felt that the victim made homosexual advances? I’m deeply upset that this law is still on the statute books in 2010. Richie Wright.

I understand that there has been a lot of concern about this over recent decades. The guidance which the Crown Prosecution Service currently offers, says that the fact that the victim made a sexual advance on the defendant does not in itself give the defendant a defence of self-defence. I agree that it is wrong if proportionality is not considered in such cases, as in all self-defence cases. We would be prepared to look at this again if there is a strong case for a change in the law or for further strengthening of the guidance the CPS sends out.

Life in Iraq is now much worse for gay people than it was under Saddam Hussein. As architects of the political situation in Iraq do you consider your government morally obliged to extend asylum more actively and with less bureaucracy to gay Iraqis who are in danger as a direct consequence of UK intervention in their country? Simon Reader

I unreservedly condemn abuses of gay rights, wherever in the world they happen, including in Iraq. But I’m sorry I can’t agree that this is a result of military intervention. Saddam’s was a brutal regime which mistreated a wide range of minorities inside Iraq including LGBT people. Whatever people’s views about the military intervention – and I have made clear that I think the international community had no choice given Saddam’s repeated flouting of international resolutions as well as his abuses of his own people – I hope they will acknowledge that in almost all respects Iraq is a better place, and the Middle East a better and safer place, with him no longer in power. Iraq is now an emerging democracy – definitely still with many flaws, but a strengthening democracy with the recent elections. We must continue to press the Iraqi government to improve their record on tolerance and human rights as we do with other countries in the region and the world. I believe that human rights are universal, and that it is the job of mature democracies like Britain to support the development of free societies everywhere. I think Iraq now has a better chance of becoming a free society that genuinely respects human rights than it did under Saddam. As to your question on whether there is something we could do for gay asylum seekers from Iraq as a group, it is a fundamental principle of our asylum system that each cases is assessed fairly, separately, and on its merits.

I’m a Labour supporter but is Harriet Harman the best person to lead LGBT equality? Recently she didn’t know about her own party’s promise to strike out criminal records for men convicted of homosexuality and did not challenge the Lords over churches barring gay people from employment. Tim Young

This is going to be a word of mouth election where every single Labour supporter sticking up for your record and talking about our future offer is going to make a difference, so firstly thanks for your support. I think Harriet has been a great champion for equality and she’s been a consistent voice inside the party and the cabinet for us to test every single policy against how it will work for Britain’s diverse communities. As party chair, she’s also been working closely with LGBT Labour and its brilliant initiative Dorothy’s List, the fighting fund for out Labour LGBT candidates. We currently have 28 out LGBT candidates running for Labour at this election, both a domestic and international LGBT manifesto about how we take things forward and today’s Labour Party is more gay-friendly than any time in history, with three gay cabinet ministers, a gay General Secretary, the only lesbian MP and only BME LGBT politician plus LGBT Labour members serving in their constituencies and union branches all over the country at every level of the party.

I’ve voted Labour throughout my voting life. Recently, with the expenses scandal, I’ve started to pay more attention to what the various political parties offer. In March Ed Balls gave faith schools the option to teach that within their specific religion homosexuality is wrong. For me this is variation on what was promised to the LGBT communities by the Labour government and does nothing to stem the rise in homophobic violence of bullying of young LGBT people. In light of the evidence, how can you reassure me of your commitment to keep your manifesto promises? Adrian George

What actually happened here is that Labour introduced a schools bill which would have put sex education on a statutory footing for the first time. Under our proposals, all pupils would have been entitled to sex education from age 15, with no opt outs for faith schools, or for parents to withdraw their children from lessons. That was a big fight with the churches, and would have been a big step forward for equality. The provisions did allow faith schools to teach what their particular faith believes about homosexuality, as with other questions of doctrine and theology, but also compelled them (again, for the first time) to teach that same sex relationships are part of life, that other religions and groups have different views about them, and that regardless of religious doctrine everybody must be treated with dignity and respect. These proposals may not have been perfect from your point of view, but from mine they were a really big step forward from where we were. Unfortunately, the Tories opposed them during the end of parliament negotiations, and they did not therefore become law.

Personally, I don’t trust the Conservatives as far as I could throw them, although it seems they are making some very convincing changes. However, after years of their anti-gay ethos, many of the LGBT community remain doubtful whether they really will change and are afraid that many of our rights will be stripped. What is your opinion on this matter? Declan Quinn

One of the key things I’ve learnt in this job, is that the real test isn’t just what your party’s formal policy says – it’s about how hard you are prepared to fight when things are hard, what priority you put on an issue, whether you are prepared to stand with people when it really matters. So just ask yourself whether you really think a Conservative prime minister would have raised anti-gay legislation with the Ugandan prime minister. Ask whether he’d have taken time to apologise on all of our behalves to Alan Turing. Ask whether he’d host events each year for Pride and for LGBT History Month. And ask whether, if they’d really changed, Chris Grayling would still be in his job.