Interview: Equalities minister Nicky Morgan warns of Brexit ‘legal tangle’ on LGBT rights

In an exclusive interview with PinkNews, the Minister for Women and Equalities Nicky Morgan explains that leaving the EU may cause a ‘legal tangle’ for equality legislation.

Why should LGBT people vote to remain in the EU?

I think there are two main reasons.

The first is that everybody, LGBT or otherwise, benefits from the economic security and the national security, working with other partners that we gain from being part of the EU.

The ‘stronger, safer, better’ arguments are relevant to absolutely everybody.

But I do feel with my equalities hat on that there are things that the EU has led the way on.

Things like anti-discrimination laws on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender are absolutely embedded in EU law, which means that LGBT people benefit even more from being members of the EU.

We’ve got anti-discrimination laws in the UK, but we benefit from some of the court judgements as well.

The other thing is: equalities don’t stop at the British shore.

As members of the EU, we are able to influence other EU member states and wider countries, using our powers as a group with the EU, to influence countries where there may be discrimination.

LGBT people tell me that they feel their relationship is respected here in the UK, but when they go overseas they can’t always feel comfortable. That’s something we can change.

I think one of the things about the Remain camp that makes me feel strongly is we might physically be an island, but Britain is a very outward-facing nation.

We should use our influence on the world stage, and being part of different mechanisms is very important.

Boris Johnson has argued that LGBT people should vote to leave because most of our rights haven’t come Europe, and it doesn’t add anything, and that lots of EU countries have worse rights than us. What would you respond to those arguments?

I think what Boris said, and what others on that side have said, is very misguided.

There is no doubt there are some people… not Boris, but some people on the Leave side, probably aren’t interested in issues of discrimination.

Some of them think equality has gone too far anyway, but I think it’s misguided.

Again, it’s not just about what happens in this country, it’s about what happens in other European countries and the wider world.

We have the ability through the EU to influence that… so why would we step away from being able to change the cause of equality across Europe?

There are lots of views within the Conservative Party on this, and Ruth Davidson recently criticised the Home Secretary in a PinkNews interview. Do you think we should remain a signatory of the European Convention on Human Rights?

Yes – look, we’re going to have a debate about the British Bill of Rights. The Queen’s Speech last week made it clear we are going to introduce one.

All I’ll say on that is as a country we have a very long and proud tradition of respecting human rights. I think we should be looking to enhance human rights, and that’s what the British Bill of Rights will do.

But what we’ve seen under the Labour Party’s Human Rights Act has been a distortion – human rights have lost credibility because of the way the HRA has worked.

Would want us to still be subject to the European Court of Human Rights?

Yes, absolutely. I think we derive enormous strength from that, and that’s not what people have an issue with.

I think setting out very clearly our own British Bill of Rights is also going to be very important.

Do you not agree with the Home Secretary?

…I think, let’s have the debate.

Let’s introduce the British Bill of Rights, let’s have the debate in Parliament, let’s have the debate in the party, but we’ve got a long and proud tradition of human rights in this country.

I think our membership of the EU is a part of that, and that’s why I wouldn’t want to turn our back on it.

Sources close to the PM have suggested that LGBT rights could be put at risk if we left.

Do you think they would seriously be put at risk here, or is it just about our influence in the EU that would diminish?

I would certainly like to think that we’re a leader as a country on LGBT rights around the world. I would hate to think there would be backwards steps if we were to leave.

But I do think our ability to influence other countries and to make sure we continue to lead the way would be harder, if we were not part of the EU.

If we do vote to leave, do you believe a future government could decide to ignore the ECHR and the rules the EU has put through, to diminish the rights we have now?

Well, with the sovereignty of Parliament, future governments could ignore all sorts of things.

I would think that LGBT rights are so mainstream and respected by the majority of people in this country that that wouldn’t happen.

But one of the things that hasn’t really been explored is the legal tangle that will result if we were to leave the EU. Some of the anti-discrimination provisions that come from the EU, that we have adopted into UK law… what happens to those?

That debate – do we really want to have another debate about discrimination, and a lack of protection with regards to sexual orientation?

We’ve had those debates, we’ve got a track record. We’re leading the debate in the EU, we’re leading the debate around the world: let’s focus on that, not focus on going backwards.

According to polling we’ve done, LGBT people are much more supportive of remaining in.

What would you say to them about getting the vote out, and for example getting family members who want to leave to change their view?

I’ve had the same debate with my mother! I think it’s about asking them to think about the future, and thinking about what’s right for the country.

This is a momentous vote that is going to determine the course of the UK for decades to come.

For all the practical reasons and for our place in the world, why would Britain want to turn its back on the fundamental partnership with the EU, the single market and everything else?

It’s about having that debate and making people think it’s not just about their own particular view or experience of life. It’s thinking about other people as well.

The second message is, don’t leave voting to somebody else. It’s really important that all of us go and vote. If you believe in remaining, you might think ‘do I need to go out and have my say?’

The answer is absolutely yes. If people don’t go out and vote we can certainly find ourselves spending the next decade negotiating an exit, when we could be thinking about issues from equality to education.

I’d much rather be spending my time over the next X number of years focussing on my brief, and not focussing on untangling us from the EU.

In the US right now, we have states like North Carolina passing discriminatory laws and the Foreign Office has changed travel advice to warn people about those states.

What’s your message to some of those states, and should we be doing more as a country to make our voice heard?

I think the reaction of overseas governments as well as other states and politicians in the US is really important.

I think we always have to hesitate to tell other people what they should be doing – but it’s about using our influence.

For example, I met the Russian Minister for Education at an Education Summit in January, and I made it very clear.

I said ‘Oh by the way, I’m the Women and Equalities Minister too and I’d like to talk to you about your Equalities record’.

Were the Russians receptive?


But shining a spotlight on these issues is very important and I think showing how out of step they are.

I think the impact it has on people, and when travelling there or spending time in that place, it’s something that people want to be conscious of.

We’ve heard that you’ve been bending the Prime Minister’s ear on inclusive sex education. Do you have the contrary view to other ministers?

I don’t have a contrary view! I think my role as Women and Equalities minister, and part of the reason my two briefs fit so well together, is that if we want to change attitudes we start with young people.

That’s what we’re able to do by focussing on education.

I think we shouldn’t be frightened about talking about sex and relationship education – and I do mean relationships, as the debate often gets focussed on sex.

I think we should be talking about relationships and well being and preparing people for modern life in 21st Century Britain.
I don’t think it will be a surprise to anybody who knows me that I’ve been talking about this right the way across government.

SRE is now in secondary maintained schools. When I go to primary schools I always ask them, how do you approach these sorts of issues? Most do it in age-appropriate sensitive ways, and pretty much every secondary school I visit has some way of dealing with this.

One of the reasons we’ve put money into tackling homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying is giving teachers the confidence to tackle these issues.

As a parent it’s hard enough to talk about it, but as a teacher you’ve also got to think, ‘what do I do if someone raises a difficult issue?’

That’s where I hope that money is making a big difference, and from what I’ve heard, it is making a difference. We’re going to do reviews, and I’m hopeful we can build on that.

Two of previous three Conservative PMs have held the Education brief. You’ve said you might stand in future – are you still thinking about standing?

[Laughter] I do think there should be a woman in the running, whether it’s me or one of my other female colleagues.

There are many talented individuals in this party. It’d be a tremendous pleasure, but let’s focus on the 23rd June. The Prime Minister is doing a great job in advancing our cause.

I want to carry on with this – there’s lots of things I still want to do in the education brief, and the equalities brief.

You’ve been on a massive journey when it comes to LGBT issues. Do you think the community has moved on from your vote against equal marriage, and forgiven? Is there still conflict about that?

There’s not [any conflict] that I’m aware of… there doesn’t seem to be online.

I’m sure there are still individuals that when I first meet them, they are cognizant of my vote.

I hope I confound their expectations. Obviously it’s important to recognise when you’re wrong about something and I’ve been really clear about that.

It’s the most enormous privilege doing this job.

What was lovely about the LGBT reception at Number 10 [last week] was being able to see lots of people I’ve worked with on these very important issues. We want to do lots more.

Do you think it’s made you better at the job, having to change your mind and go on a journey?

I don’t want to say that anyone else wouldn’t have been doing a good job, but I think that actually I have benefitted listening and having conversations about it. I remember speaking to [PinkNews] really early on.

I think that makes you appreciate that your previous attitude was not right – and it makes you more determined, I think, to make a difference. That’s what I’m about.

Equal marriage continues to be blocked in Northern Ireland, even though a majority of people and MLAs are in favour, because the DUP are using petitions of concern.

Do you think it’s fair the way the issue is being treated?

It is very much a devolved matter in Northern Ireland – that’s right that you respect that as a government.

I understand people’s frustrations and we’ve made a clear commitment in England, as have the other administrations, to have same-sex marriage.

I really hope that’s something we can have all across the UK.

And the whole of the EU?

Yes, and I think it’s really important!

It’s one of the things we can seek to influence. I’m really aware of the fact that when I have conversations with people in same-sex relationships or marriages – when they go abroad, depending on where they go, their relationship has to be different than it is at home.

I think every country is on its own pathway and I think it’s important that having taken the momentous decision in the last Parliament, we’re able to show that the sky doesn’t fall in.

We’ve just heard the government confirmed that gay men will be offered HPV vaccines in England for the first time.

It’s a pilot scheme for the HPV vaccination, for men who have sex with men.

This is something that has been called for by the LGBT community, and I’m really pleased that the Department of Health and Jane Ellison have been able to put this down.

Public Health England are going to start the pilot scheme in June. I think it’s another really important issue. Hopefully it shows our commitment to listening to people and working with them.

Lloyds Banking Group recently became the first major employer to offer private gender reassignment as part of its health plan. How important do you think that moves like that are, to recognise it as part of health provisions that an employer may offer?

I think it’s really important. It’s important that big companies and organisations like Lloyds are leading the way, and I congratulate them on doing so.

I don’t think anybody enters into gender reassignment or any other kind of surgery lightly, but I think it’s really important.

What we’ve seen is there has been a massive explosion of coverage of trans issues, and that’s to be welcomed.

One of the things that strikes me every time I meet someone who has an interest in this is they want to be who they are.

We have an obligation as a society to help that, and steps like Lloyds have taken are really important in recognising that.