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Comment: Here’s why equal marriage in Scotland is taking longer than in England and Wales

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With the passage of same-sex marriage legislation now complete in England and Wales, many LGBT people have been asking “what’s happening” with Scotland’s equal marriage bill.

There is considerable frustration that, having been the first part of the UK to begin the process to legalise same-sex marriage, Scotland has now fallen behind.

The Equality Network shares this frustration with the slower process in Scotland, and we wanted to set out what we expect will happen next.

The next steps to equal marriage in Scotland

The Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Bill was introduced in the Scottish Parliament in June and is currently going through Stage One of the legislative process, which means it is being considered by the Scottish Parliament Equal Opportunities Committee.

The Committee has issued a call for written evidence and, when the Scottish Parliament reconvenes in September, it will hear from witnesses like the Equality Network and other groups supporting the bill, but also from groups that oppose same-sex marriage.

It will then produce a report which will be considered by the whole Scottish Parliament, and a Stage One vote on the principles of the bill will be held, probably in November. This crucial vote will decide whether the bill proceeds or falls so it is vital that equal marriage supporters contact Scotland’s politicians to keep up the pressure between now and the day of the vote.

If the bill passes its Stage One vote, it will move to Stage Two, where the Equal Opportunities Committee will scrutinise it and make amendments. Stage Two is likely to take place between December and January 2014.

The bill will then move to Stage Three where the whole Scottish Parliament will consider whether to make any additional amendments, or to overturn any amendments made by the committee. There will then be a final debate and vote on the bill. This will probably happen by March 2014.

If it is passed there will be a four week period when the bill may be challenged by the UK government. It is unlikely that the bill will be challenged as this usually only occurs if a bill is deemed to be outside the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament (i.e. not a devolved matter).

After the four week period has expired the Scottish Parliament’s Presiding Officer will submit the bill for Royal Assent in order for it to become an act of the Scottish Parliament.

The Scottish Government will then need to prepare regulations to enable the provisions of the act to be fully implemented – the UK Government still needs to do this for the legislation in England and Wales. That process could take up to 12 months, but we will be pressing for it to be done quicker.

All this means the first same-sex marriages could take place in Scotland either in 2014 or by early 2015.

Why is Scotland taking longer than England and Wales?

The road to equal marriage in Scotland has been a long one.

The Equality Network has always called for equal partnership rights since we were established in 1997. When civil partnerships were being proposed as a compromise, back in the first half of the last decade, we campaigned for them as a ‘step in the right direction’ but also publicly called on the Scottish Government to legalise same-sex marriage and mixed-sex civil partnership too.

In June 2008, Scotland became the first part of the UK to have a major campaign for same-sex marriage when the Equality Network launched Equal Marriage (coining the term). For three years we campaigned vigorously and eventually secured commitments in the manifestos of four out of five parties at the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections.

In September 2011, Scotland became the first part of the UK to start the process for legalising same-sex marriage by launching a public consultation on the principle. This became the biggest consultation ever undertaken when over 77,500 people responded (the equivalent of almost 1 million responses to a UK consultation).

In July 2012, the Scottish Government published the results of the consultation and announced it would seek to legalise same-sex marriage. In September, the bill was included in the Scottish Government’s legislative programme for the year ahead. The Scottish Government also decided to hold a consultation on the draft bill in winter 2012/13.

That consultation closed at the end of March 2013. The responses helped instigate changes to the first draft of the bill, and we worked with the Scottish Government to push for more improvements, particularly relating to those parts of the bill that affect transgender equality. The actual bill is significantly better than the consultation draft.

Back in 2011, the Scottish Government had said that a marriage bill could be introduced by April 2013. In fact it took a couple of months longer, which the government put down to an unexpectedly large number of consultation responses.

On 27 June this year, in the week of the Equal Marriage campaign’s fifth birthday, the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Bill was finally introduced in the Scottish Parliament and began its journey into law.

Since devolution in 1999 Scotland has been ahead of England and Wales on some legal changes, including the repeal of Section 28 and trans hate crime laws, and a bit behind on others such as same-sex marriage. Those differences in timing are an inevitable consequence of devolution, and in our experience the resulting “leapfrogging” has actually helped push forward equality both sides of the border.

It’s a very frustrating wait for the many couples who want to marry in Scotland. The silver lining is that the more consultative process means some of our concerns regarding the detail of the bill have been resolved prior to its introduction. As a result we hope Scotland will end up with a considered and progressive bill, which in the long-run ultimately matters more.

Tom French is policy co-ordinator at the Equality Network


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