WATCH: David Laws presents Lynne Featherstone with PinkNews Ally of the Year Award

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a white background.

The Minister of State for Schools and the Cabinet Office, David Laws, on Wednesday attended the PinkNews Awards to present Lynne Featherstone with the PinkNews Ally of the Year Award.

On accepting the award, the DFID Minister Mrs Featherstone said: “I’m not really religious in any way, but if I have any view of religion it is that it’s meant to be about love, and goodness and inclusiveness. And my hope for the future is that the great Orthodox religions of our world one day embrace same-sex marriage fully.”

Wednesday’s event was the first time Mr Laws has spoken an LGBT event since he was forced to come out as gay in 2010 after he was made to repay expenses he had paid to his boyfriend, breaking parliamentary rules. He later said he did so to keep his relationship secret.

Mr Laws’ speech and Mrs Featherstone’s acceptance are available to read below in full.

It’s presenting an award for a huge achievement to somebody who is a colleague of mine and someone frankly who has no excuse to have prepared a speech for this evening because she is the only nominee.

Benjamin Cohen said earlier on and I entirely agree with him that one of the huge big achievements of this Parliament is that it may be remembered for in future years is one of the things that we’ve been discussing this evening.

I suppose all governments however long they serve only do one or two things that really stick in the public mind 5, 10 or 15 years later and sometimes only one. And for this Government it will be on part being the first major coalition Government formed in the UK – but one of the things I think many people will remember as particularly significant for a huge number of people in this country, is actually the legislation that we passed on equal marriage that really transforms the nature of this country and sends a huge signal to about the equality between people in this country. Of course there’ll be some people who actually if you ask what you associate this government with – probably wouldn’t even mention the achievement of equal marriage at all. And in some ways that is even a bigger achievement for those people who took through the bill.

The truth is that this hugely difficult, painfully controversial issue that generated so much debate in the country and so much letters to MPs is now bizarrely expected as many forecasted just months later as something that is a natural part of the architecture of this country and which very few people thankfully both in politics and beyond would seek to reverse and that in some ways is the biggest success of all.

The second thing I wanted to say is it’s evident that those of us who want to be proud of what the Government has done in this area and proud of the winner who won this award, mustn’t completely overplay. We’ve seen awards and heard about people this evening who have created the foundation of this great achievement of equal marriage and have in many cases in a tougher and more thankless environment than that there have been a lot of people outside of parliament who have bravely stood up for equal rights for same sex couples, there are people in Parliament in all of the parties who we owe a lot for changing the environment. But somebody had to be the Minister who had at the beginning of the Government raised this issue and was determined as a minister to follow it through and did so without actually anything I believe in the manifestos of any of the main parties saying that we would deliver this in Government.

This minister did what every minister should do and that was to work out pretty early in their time of office what one or two really big things they want to do that will be unforgettable. This person had the guts determination, astuteness, sometimes even deviousness, ability to build coalitions across parties – to take one of the most difficult and controversial things that we’ve had to do the whole parliament through and to do so when there were a large number of MPs who were speaking out very passionately against it. So I do think we owe this person an enormous debt of gratitude. I do not think that we can take for granted that without her in that post this achievement would have been delivered.

And I think also she sets a wonderful example of a minister who doesn’t just start the process off and takes all the glory but sees her job right the way through and I understand that she herself has attended a number of the first equal marriage invite weddings and she seems to be on the invite list for virtually every one that’s held the country, so she spends all her time trying to determine who to upset and who to please and she will not have a shortage of invitations for whatever she does I suspect for the next decade or more.

At the time when the debate was in full flow there were a lot of people in the country said ‘do we need to have this, to pick this fight?’; ‘do we really need the controversy?’;’Is this really the most important issue in the country at this current time?’; ‘Can’t these people accept that we’ve already got civil partnerships and all these terrible injustices have been dealt with?’; Isn’t this really just about equality in it’s own sake?’. And in some ways it was about that, symbols do matter – a clear statement of equality not just fixing some of the problems behind the scenes with inheritances or some other problems that have arisen before, but a clear powerful statement of the equal status of people who want to go into same-sex marriages is not just a source of contentment to many of us but is also one of the most powerful possible symbols of our acceptances society of every individual and of their basic equality and therefore it has been a massive thing to do and a huge privilege for me to be able to present this award this evening to the person who is the least well kept secret of all of the awards, Lynne Featherstone.

Mrs Featherstone responded

When I conceived of [same-sex marriage] as being a good idea – it was in fact because I knew so little about being in Government I didn’t think the fact it wasn’t in the coalition agreement and wasn’t in the manifesto it was as much of a problem.

But it was to PinkNews that I Googled to find out what all the leaders had said because I thought if the three leaders had said it was OK then I was probably on a winning ticket and I turn to you whenever I want to know anything, so huge thank you to PinkNews.

In terms of what’s done, I am writing a book too, Lord Fowler. Because there is a story to be told but I’m not allowed to tell it while I’m a Minister. And there are many many heroes right across the parties who have taken steps who have made what we did in this Parliament, possible. And there are those who have – as Lord Cashman has eloquently said – suffered the discrimination and hatred and violence that is unimaginable and to them we say thank you.

But in order to do this I have to say thank you – this is the devious bit actually David that you were kind enough to mention – was really because it wasn’t on the cards. Was to form alliances across Government, across Parties – I had a man or a woman in every department and also who very rarely get mentioned, my civil servants. Because a minister can decide they want to do something, but unless they have fantastic civil servants also driving it forward – and they have their own spy network let me tell you – that makes it all the more possible.

So obviously it is for me, the idea to bring social change and equality is the happiest place and the nicest thing a politician can ever do. But as many have said, the work is not done and there are two areas many people have mentioned work across the world and of course I then transferred to DFID and we are working on a strategy because when I go to Africa, African countries say to me ‘this is Western construct we don’t have homosexuals in our country’ and I say ‘oh yes you do’.

But, the dangers they face is paramount so we are working on a strategy that perhaps would work more broadly across the world with Southern voices and in many ways.

And the other area in which I hope one day things will change because there were and are some wonderful religions that embrace same-sex marriage but at the time that we were taking this through before it actually came to the legislative phase, there were some gentle things said about same-sex marriage. And I’m not religious in any way, but if I have any view of religion it is that it’s meant to be about love, and goodness and inclusiveness. And I hope for the future is the great Orthodox religions of our world one day embrace it as fully as everyone in this room.