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Cabinet split over new rights for gays

Printer-friendly version Gaby Hinsliff, political editor
Sunday October 15, 2006
The Observer,,1922914,00.html

The cabinet is in open warfare over new gay rights legislation after Tony Blair and Ruth Kelly, the Communities Secretary, who is a devout Catholic, blocked the plans following protests from religious organisations.

Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, was so angry with the move that he wrote a letter to Kelly three weeks ago, telling her that the new rights should not be watered down.

The battle between what is being dubbed the government's 'Catholic tendency' and their more liberal colleagues centres on proposals to stop schools, companies and other agencies refusing services to people purely because of their sexuality.

Tony Blair, who sent three of his children to Catholic schools, is said to be anxious about the impact on faith schools and faith-based adoption agencies, which are demanding to be exempt from the law.

Kelly has now delayed the introduction of the laws for consideration of what a spokesman said were 'difficult issues'. Johnson is leading the opposition to watering down the laws. 'His department has in the past taken the faith schools' line but Johnson is saying they have got to be sensible about this,' said a senior Whitehall source. 'You can' t have Satan worshippers going into the local church to have their annual meeting, but if there's a publicly funded school and it wants to open its facilities to everyone else but not a local gay and lesbian group - that's discrimination.'

The proposed measures would ban discrimination over the provision of goods and services, meaning, for example, that hotels which banned gay couples from sharing a room could be prosecuted. In turn, gay bars would also have to be open to straight clients. More broadly, the rules potentially affect everything from fertility clinics' right to refuse lesbian couples IVF treatment to whether the tourism industry can promote heterosexuals-only honeymoon resorts, drawing several Whitehall departments into the row.

Faith schools have, however, led the protest, arguing that the rules could affect teaching about sex or require them to let gay groups hold meetings on their premises after hours. Catholic adoption agencies fear being forced to allow gay couples to adopt children. The Catholic church, which regards homosexuality as a sin, has suggested adoption agencies would close down rather than obey.Johnson, who originally agreed the proposals when he was Trade and Industry Secretary before a Whitehall reorganisation transferred the issue into Kelly's department, is understood to be dismayed that they are now in jeopardy.

The issue has also tested David Cameron's progressive credentials, with senior Conservatives still locked in debate about their response.

The new regulations were due to have been introduced this month. That has been delayed until next April after what a spokeswoman for Kelly's Department of Communities and Local Government said was an unusually large number of representations.

'There are some difficult issues,' she said. 'There are issues around Christian B&Bs, where it tends to be Christians that stay there and some of the religious lobby are saying they would not be happy for a gay couple to stay there.'

The proposals already exempt so-called doctrinal issues - giving vicars freedom to preach sermons as they wish. Ministers insist religious education teachers would still be able to teach what the Bible says about homosexuality, and that the measures would simply mean faith schools could not, for example, refuse to admit openly gay pupils.

Chris Bryant, the Labour MP who is both gay and an ex-vicar, said he was 'very anxious' about the likelihood of exemptions being granted: 'Where organisations are working on behalf of the state, the only thing that should matter is the interests of the children involved. It would be an enormous mistake to provide exemptions for faith-based organisations.'

Ben Summerskill of Stonewall, the gay rights lobby group, said backing down particularly over adoption would also have serious consequences: ' It would be playing into the offensive and completely dishonest stereotype that somehow gay people are not safe with children, and the impact that would almost certainly have on the wider gay and lesbian public is [feeling] that the government was stigmatising gay people for no good reason.'

The consultation is particularly sensitive because both Kelly and her deputy equalities minister, Meg Munn, as well as Blair, are committed Christians.

The dispute is now likely to go to a cross-departmental cabinet committee for resolution. A source close to Kelly insisted the delay did not mean she was refusing to implement the proposals.