Interview: Equalities minister on voting against same-sex marriage, taking her children to Pride

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a pink background.

Newly-appointed equalities minister Caroline Dinenage speaks to PinkNews about her vote against same-sex marriage – and how she hopes to win people over on LGBT rights.

You previously said that the state has “no right” to redefine marriage. As an equalities minister – what DO you have the right to do, and how do you see your role?

I’m really excited about this opportunity in the Government Equalities Office. I was originally [Minister for Equalities] Nicky Morgan’s Parliamentary Private Secretary before – so it was something that I got to spend a year learning a lot about and getting really interested in.

My comment came in 2013 around the equal marriage vote – I think was just very much born out of that particular time.

There was huge amounts of pressure, there was huge amounts of letters coming in, huge amounts of correspondence on this. As a new member of Parliament, you felt a real obligation to represent the interests of constituents.

But I was forgetting that there’s the whole silent majority out there that actually weren’t writing to you. People who really felt very strongly about this, but didn’t feel strong enough to put pen to paper.

Have you changed your mind on same-sex marriage?

No – because this was never an issue for me. I always had no problem with people being able to marry whoever they love. But I was just equally aware of the responsibility to try to represent some views of my constituents.

When you look at it in the cold light of day – when you get 500 letters, it feels a lot at the time. But then you realise you’ve got 73,000 constituents. It’s a tiny percentage, but it’s very easy to say that with the benefit of hindsight.

At the time, the comments you made certainly implied that opposing same-sex marriage was your own belief, and wasn’t just representing your constituents’ views. Do you regret some of the things you said?

Well, I suppose I do. You try and justify it to yourself – but as soon as I’d gone through the voting lobby, I thought to myself, ‘what on earth are you doing?’

If you look at my voting record, there were five or six votes on same-sex marriage and I didn’t vote against it again. I only did it the once.

I thought, ‘This is ridiculous, you have to go with actually what’s in your heart and what you believe in’ – which is why the record will show that I then didn’t do it again.

You’re the second minister who opposed same-sex marriage to be appointed to the Equalities brief. Since her appointment, Nicky Morgan has come around on the issue quite a bit. Do you think the Prime Minister is making a point with his appointments?

I think the reason I was appointed is, I’d already been involved for a year as a PPS. I think [the PM] felt that he had somebody who was already on the inside of this department, who knew exactly how it worked, who could hit the ground running and could actually push forward some of the key manifesto pledges the government had campaigned on.

My portfolio is jointly in GEO and Ministry of Justice, because one of the cornerstones of our manifesto was pushing on from Alan Turing with the historical pardoning – these are really important issues, and the party fought the general election on them.

I think the PM felt that he wanted someone in place who already had a good understanding of how the government equalities office worked. I think that was the reason behind it.

Were you surprised at the strong reaction to the news of your appointment as an equalities minister?

I was disappointed, but not surprised – obviously you have to be accountable for the decisions you’ve made in the past, even if you don’t want those decisions to define you. I don’t want those decisions to define me.

I feel very passionately about this job. I feel very passionately about the whole LGBT agenda, and the whole women and equalities agenda.

I would like people to judge me on what I achieve in this role – but the reaction’s almost given me an additional impetus to prove people wrong and that I am going to be good at this job.

I’m going to make people sit up and realise that I won’t be defined by one error of judgement. I will be defined on my achievement.

Was it hurtful to be a joke on Have I Got News For You, and the News Quiz?

People make a decision on who you are, based on one error of judgement… clearly, that’s always going to be frustrating.

Look – you always have to make decisions throughout your political life, based on whether you’re representing your party, whether you’re representing your electorate, or whether you’re representing yourself.

Hopefully, nine times out of 10, those three things will all take you down the same lobby. But occasionally, you have to make a decision – I face those decisions over other things too.

I’m not in favour of repealing the Hunting Act, for example, – I think, the long you’ve been in this job, the more you have the self-confidence to do that.

The other thing I will say, is I think that PinkNews really needs to move on as well.

I was one of the key people who put through the Women and Equalities select committee. And, in the PinkNews article, it was ‘Oh, it’s fantastic we’ve got the Women and Equalities select committee, but we’ve still got this MP who voted against gay marriage’.

It didn’t say ‘this is one of the women who fought hard to get this Women and Equalities select committee’ – and I did. I’ll take the flack, but I want to take the credit when I get things done as well.

Do you have any religious beliefs?

I come from a sort of Christian background. I have faith, but I’m not particularly church-going.

Tim Farron struggled with this question: Do you believe homosexuality is a sin?

No, of course not!

Easy, isn’t it?

I mean. it’s difficult, because I’m from a different political party – but I would say that the LGBT community have a right to know what they’re voting for.

He needs to come out and say, one way or another – if you want to be in the position where people will trust you on other issues, you’ve got to be honest!

This is the first time Parliament has had a select committee for Women and Equalities – how do you think it will help shape the brief?

I think it’s fantastic. I think it’s fundamental. A very key competent of this was that this committee had the ability to be able to look across the whole of government- not just holding the Government Equalities Office to account, but holding the whole of government to account, for the way that they deal with the Women and Equalities agenda.

I think that that’s new and it’s really strong and it’s really important. Having sat on select committees before, sometimes you’re quite limited by being only able to look at the things which fall within your government department – but this committee can go out across the whole of government and wider.

I think that that’s actually going to be really, really good.

Committee chair Maria Miller has indicated that one of those things that she wants to tackle is the leftover trans issues from the Marriage bill, and some other issues. Do you welcome that?
Absolutely! I welcome Maria, first of all, because she’s a very experienced parliamentarian.

She’s got a very strong track record on these issues and a very strong understanding, so she will be great.

The whole trans agenda is something that really needs to be at the forefront of the government’s thinking. We’re thinking very hard – there are small issues that you come across all the time that actually make a difference to people’s lives and that could be quite easily overcome, but you don’t even realise there’s a problem.

I just recently at a school and they highlighted the issues that youngsters that are going through transition have with exam boards. It never crossed my mind, but it’s a small thing that actually makes a big difference and these are things that we can look at.

Ireland has recently passed their Gender Recognition law – and it’s in some ways more advanced than ours. They’ve gone for a simple statutory declaration, outside of the medical process, and it’s been praised a lot – do you think we need to look at our laws again, as they’ve been in place for over a decade now?

Yes – I think it’s definitely something we can look at. I want to look very broadly at this, at every obstacle and every challenge and see how we can better address it.

In a PinkNews interview, Norman Lamb raised the issue of LGBT representation in the media – particularly children’s TV. He said he’d like to see LGBT characters in shows like Peppa Pig. Is that something you would back as well?

It’s been a long time since I’ve watched Peppa Pig! I have been to Peppa Pig World. I don’t really know – I just think that media should be representative of life. I’m not familiar with Peppa Pig – but yes, media needs to be representative of life.

I think we do discover through a lot of the policies the government tries to implement, that when you address things on a soap opera, it actually helps people address them in real life. We see all the time in things like EastEnders, when they tackle some of the most challenging issues of our day

It really does help people in the wider community address it – every aspect of the media needs to be representative of life.

I’ve got a seven-year-old and I took him to the Portsmouth Pride event and he had the most wonderful time – because he comes from a world where everybody’s the same.

He enjoyed all the food that was on offer, all the sweets that were on offer – there was hula hooping, there was wristbands, there was rainbow shoelaces. All his favourite Portsmouth football players were there because they were launching the LGBT supporters’ club.

He lives in a world where you can love who you like. We’re all having a fantastic party and a great celebration and, to him, the theme was irrelevant because that’s how children feel. That’s actually how we should all feel. It’s only as we get older in life that certain people develop prejudices.

That’s really interesting – the media has an image of you as someone who opposed equality, but you took your son to a Pride parade! Do you think it’s something more parents should do?

I took both my sons – I’ve got a 12 year old and a seven year old, and they both enjoyed it. There were lots of children there.

It was a very family-friendly celebration and they both came away with something very different.

My 12 year old was very much more aware of the diversity issues. He was actually outraged – he sat in my car with a map of the world, and was outraged at the amount of places in the world where you could be imprisoned for being gay. You can be put to death for being gay.

He couldn’t believe it at the age of 12. He thought this was outrageous.

Of course, we all do, but even that was an eye-opener for him.

The seven year old was just more into the fact that he was just having a wonderful time and he just thought, we’re going to a party like this every week!

You raise countries that persecute gay people – PinkNews recently spoke to the US envoy on LGBT rights, who is doing a lot on these issues around the world. Obviously, our government has rejected the idea of having one LGBT envoy. How do you tackle want to those issues?

I think internationally, all of our representatives that go overseas and work overseas should be LGBT envoys. I don’t think we should necessarily have one.

I think they should all be promoting these issues and bringing them up. I think the fact that we’ve got Crispin Blunt now as the chairman of the FCO Select Committee – he’s a great champion for LGBT issues, and he’s a really good person to be in that role. I think that we do need to do more around the world to promote our way of thinking because it’s the right way of thinking.

It’s interesting that we’ve gone down a separate route from the US, who have decided to focus all their power into this one symbolic role. Randy Berry, the new envoy, is going to Uganda next month. Don’t you think that sends a powerful message to the world?

I think it does send a powerful image – there’s no disagreeing with that. But, I think it would be more powerful if all of our ambassadors were doing it, and all of our representatives who travel the world were doing it. It would actually be less symbolic and actually more meaningful.

There was recently a row when people wanted to send a powerful message from our embassies across the world by flying Pride flags – but that was blocked by regulations, as flags other than the Union flag are banned. Would that be something you’d be in support of changing?

I haven’t looked into this a great deal. I have teased my colleagues in the FCO about it, gently – but I haven’t looked into the wheres-and-whyfores but, as I understand it, they only ever fly the [Union flag].

It’s certainly something that we should look at, but I’m not entirely aware of the regulation behind it.

What measures will you take to tackle homophobia in schools?

This is something we’re putting a lot of effort into. There was a £2 million announcement of funding for this in March.

I’ve been to one of the Stonewall schools and seen the work they’re doing and it’s actually fantastic.

Having the opportunity to speak to some of the kids at the school. It really brings it home, the importance of this.

I think this whole idea of tolerance is really important for children, whether they’re LGBT or not. Everybody is different, and we should be celebrating that rather than bullying other people because of their individuality.

I know this is one of Nicky’s big passions. We know that bullying does go on and any youngster who’s not able to fulfil their potential through their education – it’s a tragedy. I think we need to do everything we can to tackle it, but there’s some brilliant work already going on.

Green MP Caroline Lucas submitted a ten minute rule bill recently on PSHE, which included a mandate for statutory, inclusive sex and relationship education. Do you feel that is something that would be valuable to schools?

I think it’s really important. I think sexual relationship education is really important for youngsters – for all youngsters.

Knowing what a healthy relationship looks like and knowing what a safe relationship looks like is fundamental for everybody.

But do you think it’s important that it’s statutory, and in all schools?

I think it’s more important that it’s done properly, but I do think that we need to very much an emphasis on that. I know, certainly Nicky feels that it’s something we should look at.

Would you support SRE in faith schools?
Yes – but the most important thing is that it’s taught well.

I would much rather that schools are doing the job properly, than doing it half-heartedly and not doing it right – you actually have such an opportunity to make a real difference to outcomes in young people’s lives.

The SNP has earmarked the Equalities brief as something they’d like to be entirely devolved. Should Scotland be allowed to make its own way on equality’s issues?

I am very open to chat with them about it, but I know that we need to make sure that we’ve got a robust approach to cross all the different individual nations.

Different parts of the country have different records on homophobic bullying and homophobic bullying in schools. We need to make sure that, if it’s being addressed separately, it’s being addressed properly.

On the pledge to scrap the Human Rights Act and reform rights laws – David Cameron said clearly ‘we don’t require instruction from Brussels on these issues’.

But looking at what Human Rights laws have actually done for LGBT rights – allowing gays in the military, overturning Northern Ireland’s sodomy law – how can we say that we don’t require instructions on these issues, when we clearly have in the past, and when then the government admits it’s right that those decisions were taken?

I think we need to proceed very cautiously with this, but I think the absolute fundamental issue here is that we make sure that when we have our British Bill of Rights, it doesn’t undermine human rights – it actually strengthens them. That’s the key.

I was born in Portsmouth where virtually everybody is in the Royal Navy, so I know exactly the crazy policy that we had all those years ago. I went to the the Armed Forces Day on Pride, and to be able to chat to people about this… I just thought that just shows how far we’ve come as a country.

We need to make sure we don’t undermine human rights laws – we actually want to strengthen them.

A stipulation in the proposals around the British Bill of Rights is that it won’t apply to ‘trivial’ cases. How do we ensure that that safeguards LGBT issues, which historically would have been regarded as trivial?

I think that this is why we’re taking so long. This isn’t a piece of legislation we’d introduce straight away – we’re taking an extra amount of time to make sure we get it right. Every stakeholder and every interest group has to be consulted, and everybody has to feel that they’re being brought with this before it happens.

The Tory manifesto pledged to disregard historic convictions for gay sex offences – but it wasn’t in the first Queen’s Speech. Has there been any progress?

It’s one of my biggest priorities. We’re working on it at the moment – the legislation isn’t straight forward, but it’s an absolute priority. I’m determined to push it through as quickly as possible. It’s going to come in, and it’ll be done in short term.

In the first half of this government?

Yes, I would hope so.