Speech: British Home secretary promises progress on full gay marriage equality

Home Secretary Theresa May

In her first major speech on LGBT rights, the home secretary and minister for equality, Theresa May, has promised action on full gay marriage equality. Mrs May was speaking at an event hosted by the gay lobby group Stonewall.

Mrs May spoke on the coalition government’s moves to allow religious groups to host civil partnerships. Mrs May said: “No religious group will be forced to host a civil partnership registration, but for those who wish to do so this is an important step forward, not just for lesbian, gay and bisexual rights but also for religious freedom.”

Mrs May also said: “There is also a desire to move towards equal civil marriage and partnerships and we will consult further on how legislation can develop, working with all those who have an interest in this area.”

PinkNews.co.uk understands that both the prime minister, David Cameron and the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg favour full marriage equality; allowing gay couples to hold civil marriages and for straight couples to hold civil partnerships. This position is partly being adovated because of the Equal Love campaign, led by Peter Tatchell, that has lodged a case at the European Court of Human rights after eight straight and gay couples were denied either gay civil marriages or straight civil partnerships.

PinkNews.co.uk questioned the appointment of Mrs May as minister for equality last year. PinkNews.co.uk pointed out that although she had voted for civil partnerships, she had voted against an equal age of consent, gay couples adopting and the abolition of Section 28- an effective ban on discussing homosexuality within schools.

Following her appointment, Mrs May wrote an column for PinkNews.co.uk where she called for cultural as well as legal recognition of LGBT people/

Mrs May’s speech is reproduced below:-

‘It’s wonderful to see so many of our top employers represented here today. I think that shows how far we, as a society, have come.

As recently as 1967, homosexual acts between consenting adults were illegal.

And people could be sacked from their jobs because of their sexual orientation.

But now we have openly gay people in business, in politics, in the public sector, in the arts and in sport.

As a country we have come a long way.

And as a party, my own party, the Conservatives have come a long way. We now have more openly gay MPs and openly gay ministers than ever before.

But don’t just judge us by how we look and what we say, judge us on what we do.

Last week we published the first ever cross-government action plan for LGB and T equality.

That action plan contains clear milestones so you can hold us to account – you can judge us on how we perform.

Because despite the real progress we have seen in recent years, there is much still to do:

  • nearly two thirds of LGB secondary school pupils experience homophobic bullying
  • one in five gay or lesbian people have experienced a homophobic hate crime or incident
  • and one in five LGB people have experienced bullying from their work colleagues because of their sexual orientation

This government is committed to making change happen.

Why Equality Matters

I am passionate about equality – it’s not an aside for me or an after-thought. It is at the very heart of what this coalition government is about.

For me, equality is about fairness: it’s about equal treatment and equal opportunity.

It’s about building a better society. Not a society where everyone gets the same outcomes. But a society where everyone is treated equally; and where everyone is given the same opportunities – regardless of their gender, their race, their gender identity or their sexual orientation.

And it’s about building a modern economy. Now, more than ever, we need to make sure we are using the talents and the skills of every person in this country. So equality is not an optional extra that we should only care about when money is plentiful – it’s central to our task of building an economy fit for the 21st century.

But in recent years, equality has come to mean something different – it has become a dirty word, associated with the worst forms of pointless political correctness and social engineering.

I want to reclaim the equalities agenda.

I want to change people’s perceptions of what equality is all about.

And I want a new approach to the way government tries to deliver its aims of equal treatment and equal opportunities.

New Approach to Equalities

Central to that new approach is the idea that we have to move away from the identity politics of the past – where government categorised millions of people according to what box they ticked on a form.

The idea that as a person you are defined solely by your gender, by your race, by your religion or by your sexual orientation is as patronising as it is absurd.

Of course, we need to recognise that some people, because of who they are, face distinct and persistent challenges.  But we need to stop defining people simply by their membership of a particular group, and instead we need to start recognising that people are individuals.

That means demonstrating that equality is for everyone by making it a part of everyday life.

Recognition of this simple fact allows us to start looking at the problem differently and, importantly, to start looking at the solutions differently.

New approach

That’s why the other key pillar of our new approach to equalities is about changing the role of government. I want us to move away from the arrogant notion from government that it knows best. Government can act as a leader, a convenor and an advocate for change.

But on its own it will only ever make limited progress. We need to work with people, communities and businesses – we need to work with people like you, to enact real change.

Of course, there will always be a place for direct government action.

Civil Partnership legislation, for example, marked a great advance for gay rights in this country.

And we will go further – we will implement section 202 of the Equality Act which will remove the ban on civil partnership registrations being held on religious premises.

No religious group will be forced to host a civil partnership registration, but for those who wish to do so this is an important step forward, not just for LGB rights but also for religious freedom. Let’s not forget that this amendment was brought forward in response to religious groups such as the Quakers and Liberal Jews wanting to celebrate civil partnerships.

Having listened to stakeholders it is clear from many that there is also a desire to move towards equal civil marriage and partnerships and we will consult further on how legislation can develop, working with all those who have an interest in this area.

And we are legislating right now to change the law and wipe the slate clean for gay men who have old convictions for consenting acts between adults.

Under the Protection of Freedoms Bill, which I introduced to Parliament last month, individuals will be able to apply to have convictions and cautions disregarded for actions that would not today be considered an offence.

But you can’t solve a problem as complex as inequality just by pushing through more and more legislation. And you can’t make life better for gay people just by saying their lives should be made better.

The answer isn’t just more laws, regulations and targets – it’s time for a more intelligent approach.

We will take a new approach to tackling the causes of inequality and we will use targeted action to deal with the consequences of inequality.

Our approach won’t be based on box ticking and bureaucracy; it will be based on accountability and transparency.

What matters is not doing the paperwork; it’s getting the results.

New government policies

That’s exactly what we’ve done with the new Public Sector Equality Duty.

The Public Sector Equality Duty will expand the list of protected characteristics to include sexual orientation for the first time.

This is a big step forward.

Public bodies will now need to consider the needs of LGB people when designing their services, and internally in their own staff practices.

But we’ve looked again at the specific duties that are meant to help public sector organisation meet their obligations under the general duty.

We want to empower organisations to move away from the tick box and form filling of the past, and instead to encourage all organisations to take responsibility for their own performance and to be held to account by the public.
Public sector organisations should not be judged by whether they have ticked a box on a form, but on whether, in meeting their equalities duties, they have made a real and tangible difference to people’s lives. That might be by improving the lives of the staff that work for them or improving the services that they deliver.

So we have designed new specific duties that require transparent information and data about staff and services, so people can see what’s going right and what’s going wrong, where the gaps are, and whether things are moving in the right direction or the wrong direction.

Armed with that information, the public will be able to hold public service organisations to account.

That approach of shining the light of transparency, aiding accountability, raising awareness, and spreading good practice will apply right across the public sector.

Private Sector Action

So we are doing our bit, but it’s not all about government action. We need you to do your bit as well.

Many organisations – probably all of those represented in this room – now recognise that equality at work not only makes moral sense, but it also makes good business sense.

Inclusive and diverse companies and public services benefit from the fresh perspectives, new ideas and broad experience that a diverse workforce can bring.

An organisation which is open and welcoming to all kinds of people will attract the best talent.

A company that better reflects its customers is more able to understand its customers’ needs.

And a public sector organisation that better reflects the public is more able to understand their needs.

So this is not equality for equalities’ sake – it’s about making companies and making public services better.

Look at Staffordshire Police. In 2006 they came top of Stonewall’s Workplace Equality Index, after some years work engaging both staff and local residents. In exactly the same year Staffordshire was also deemed a ‘top-performing force’ by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary.

Look at IBM, which was Stonewall’s Employer of the Year in 2010; the first employer to win the title twice. They have an LGBT sales team, delivering measurable business results. They engage their LGBT employee network to help set and deliver their equality strategy. They provide training for line managers, including case studies on LGBT employees and information on how policies apply to LGBT staff. And they use their influence with suppliers to encourage them to adopt good practice as well. And IBM is seeing the benefits of these LGBT friendly practices.

Or look at my very own place of work, the Home Office. I am incredibly proud that we came top of this year’s Stonewall Workplace Equality Index.

The Home Office understands the importance of considering equality in everything it does. That ranges from our staff being supported by their own organisation – Spectrum – to running a campaign which encourages victims of homophobic hate crime to come forward and report incidents to the police. I hope that we will now reap the benefits.

I want everyone to follow the example of organisations like these and to make their workplaces more LGB and T friendly.

I know many employers are committed to making things better, but they don’t know where to start.

That’s why organisations like Stonewall, and the help, advice and assistance they provide are so important.

That’s why conferences like this are key.

And that’s why I want us in government to provide you with all of the information you need. So in our action plan we committed to providing improved and updated advice on employer and employee rights and responsibilities through avenues like Business Link.

Changing attittudes

But we’ll only succeed in improving LGB and T rights in the workplace, if we see a continued change in cultures and attitudes in our society.

Government can help, but ultimately it will involve every single one of us.

It starts in our schools.

So we’ll help by making sure that schools have access to sound and authoritative guidance, which empowers teachers to tackle bad behaviour and bullying in schools, including specific help to identify and tackle homophobic and transphobic bullying.

And it continues through all aspects of life.

Some have called sport the last bastion of homophobia  – for example, 7 out of 10 fans who have attended a football match in the last 5 years have heard homophobic abuse on the terraces.

But just as attitudes to racism in sport have changed unrecognisably, attitudes to homophobia in sport can be changed.

On Monday we launched a new charter to stamp out homophobia and transphobia in sport.

We’ve already secured the signatures of the biggest National Governing Bodies in sport – including the FA, the Rugby Football Union, the Rugby Football League, the Lawn Tennis Association, and the England and Wales Cricket Board.

You can play your part by logging onto Facebook and searching for “I love sport but I hate homophobia and transphobia”.

I want to see everyone signing up.

I want to see sportsmen and sportswomen saying homophobia has no place in our sport.

I want to see local teams saying LGB and T players are welcome to join our club.

And I want to see fans and spectators saying we won’t tolerate abusive language at our matches.

Sport has always played a central role in bringing communities together and I want to see that happen for LGB and T people too.

Across every aspect of life, it’s the responsibility of everyone in our society to stand up and say that people should not only feel free to be who they are but also to celebrate who they are.

We’ve come a long way

I said at the start of my speech that as a nation we have come a long way, and we have.

But too many LGB and T people still face barriers at school, at work and in their communities.

We are committed to taking action to tear down these barriers and to help build a better Britain.

But it doesn’t just take a Minister and a law to change Britain and to build a fairer society.

It takes every single organisation in this room, striving to make their workplaces a welcoming place for gay people.

It takes community groups, sports organisations, schools and charities challenging attitudes and changing perceptions.

And it takes all of us to make it happen.

Because, in the end, that is the only way we will achieve the true equality that we all want to see.’