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Lynne Featherstone - Delivering Fairness

September 16, 2008 6:26 PM

Liberal Democrats Equality spokesperson, Lynne Featherstone MP, spoke at last night's LGBT issues fringe meeting at Liberal Democrat conference in Bournemouth on a panel with Lord Chris Rennard, Baroness Sarah Ludford MEP, Jen Yockney of DELGA and Ben Summerskill of Stonewall. This is what she had to say:

Today I would like to talk about what fairness mean to us as Liberal Democrats and more importantly how we can achieve it.

As liberals I think we have instinctive sense of what equality means. This doesn't mean we have all the answers or always get it right, but equality is one of the main reasons we get out of bed and fight the political battles we fight we do.

As a country, I think we've come a long way from lesbians having to hurl themselves off the House of Lords gallery to get their point across.

I know Chris is going to touch on the Conservative Party's dodgy attitude to gay people in his speech, but publicly even they claim to have realised the error of their ways and eschewed the bigotry of social conservatism.

Indeed, the political consensus appears for the most part heading in the right direction. The post - 1997 Parliaments have piece by piece removed many of the anomalies that saw gay, lesbian and transgendered people treated unfairly in the eyes of the law. There are still some laws that need changing, but Labour majorities with the willing support of Liberal Democrat parliamentarians have brought British law into the 21st century.

But when it comes to fairness for the LGBT community, does this mean we can hang up our capes and pat ourselves on the back for a job well done? Of course this is not the case. Unfair treatment sadly still remains an everyday experience for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. The discrimination they face is perhaps not as blatant as before, but the consequences can be just as harmful to those at the receiving end.

To illustrate the challenge for fairness that faces us I wanted to choose three examples. They are:

1. The teacher that ignores kids calling each other gay as an insult

2. The Islington registrar who refused perform civil partnerships because of her religious belief

3. The BP boss Lord Browne being forced to resign because of his long-term affair with a male prostitute

Firstly the teacher. In some respects, education is the very much the last bastion of the worst of how society perceives and treats the issue of sexual orientation with the 'not in front of the children' mentality persisting.

I am sure many of you could imagine several racial or religious insults that would rightly be severely punished if overheard in the playground. So why is the word gay as an insult not treated with the same severity in so many schools?

And it's not just about the immediate hurt caused by bullying that is let pass as acceptable - it's also the longer-term message to children, as they are forming their views of the world and of how people should behave, that it's ok to view gay as something objectionable and that it's ok to make casual insults based on sexuality. That's not a happy society we're creating.

I know Stonewall has been hot on the case in tackling homophobia in education and our very own Stephen Williams has been leading the charge in our own campaign.

Changing attitudes must start in the playground and the classroom. Homosexuality is not an unmentionable awkward topic- and to treat it as such compounds the prejudice that there is something wrong with being gay.

The second case I wanted to discuss involves a registrar from Islington in London who won a case for unfair dismissal after she was dismissed for refusing to oversee civil partnerships because of her religious views. I don't know if we have any councillors or activists from Islington here this evening that would be able to give their perspectives, but for me this case revealed a major fault-line in the battle for fairness.

Please don't get me wrong - I am just a likely to be plucky and stick up for the right for one person's religious freedom. But for me this freedom is guaranteed in the framework of a secular society. We could argue until the cow come home about the extent of religious freedom, but for me one thing is clear - when the freedom of the individual comes into direct conflict of religious belief of another, then individual freedom takes precedence.

There are many who see this issue differently, even within our party - a point demonstrated by a minority of MPs in all parties who voted for the amendment to impose the need of a male role model for women seeking fertility treatment in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill.

Whilst some Parliamentarians wrangle with this issue and their moral compass, the practical implications of religious conviction undermining the rights of gay people are very real and act as an obstacle to fairness.

If we fail to combat erosion to principles of a secular society, it will not only be the rights of the LGBT community that will suffer. Millions of people rely this protection to live their lives in the way they want - from the women who has freedom over own body in deciding when she will have a child to couples freed from a loveless marriage because of the freedom to divorce. Not forgetting too those who - by being protected for the imposition of any one religion's views - are therefore free to practice their own religion too.

A secular society does not just protect those without faith - it protects those with faith too.

So, I have looked at two bastions of the state - schools, religion. Finally, I want to look one last arm of the establishment - that of the press.

"Complaining about the press is like complaining about the weather." Wise words reportedly whispered from Tony Blair to his wife. And to some extent, I agree with him. A free press is a sign of a healthy democracy. However - sometimes what is in the public interest is a far cry from what sells papers.

Look at the case of Lord Browne being forced to resign because of his long-term affair with a male escort, over which he told a white-lie about how they met. Hardly the stuff of resignations, particularly when as the dust settled we saw allegation after allegation about alleged misuse of BP resources disintegrating under the microscope.

The truth is that the heart of the story was simply that the Mail on Sunday was able to out an extremely senior business leader after 40 years of him keeping his sexuality private. As a result he felt compelled to resign.

Decriminalising gay sex in the 60s prevented gay people from being the victims of blackmail. But it still seems to have some way to go before sexuality ceases to be a newsworthy for those who choose not disclose it.

Clearly we have some way to go until we reach complete fairness. As leaders in the communities we serve, Liberal Democrats must act to challenge and to change systems that are inherently fair - whether it's the schools we govern, the registrar offices we control or the laws we can influence.

Public service providers need to be proactive in dispelling the perception from gay people that they will get worse treatment. Hopefully the next major steps in their transformation will come with the extension of the duty of public duties to promote equality for people of different sexually orientations.

And in the private sector we need to give force to their complaint, speeding up tribunals and making sure those who practise discrimination fear redress.

So we have gone a long way on this journey to equality and fairness - but equality under the law does not reach into all hearts and take away the prejudice and hatreds which rest beneath well-behaved exteriors. That has to be the ultimate goal.

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