Labour has calculated that the Muslim vote is more important than the gay vote.
Labour has dismayed the lesbian and gay community by excluding action against homophobia from five key provisions of its Equality Bill. Gay people are denied protection in the clauses on housing, education, harassment, goods and services and the legal duties of public bodies. This means most discrimination against lesbians and gays will remain lawful by default.
Instead, the new Bill introduces wide-ranging legal protection for religious believers, to the exclusion of lesbians and gay men. People of faith have won priority over gays.
The government says the new legislation is necessary to protect vulnerable religious minorities, especially Muslims. Quite right. Anti-Muslim harassment and discrimination requires urgent remedy. But this is no reason to deny equally vulnerable gay people the same protection. Why can’t the Equality Bill protect both Muslims and gays?
According to The Times political correspondent, David Cracknell, the Prime Minister’s office vetoed the inclusion of gay rights alongside rights for religious minorities. The government made the doubtful assumption that most Muslims are homophobic and that there would be an anti-Labour backlash from the Muslim community if protection for Muslims was legislated together with protection for gay people.
Desperate to win back Muslim supporters who have been alienated by Labour’s misguided war in Iraq, Ministers are determined to not alienate Muslim voters. With the Bill’s tough new protections for people of faith, Labour hopes to recoup lost support. The government appears not to care if it alienates the gay community in the process. It takes gay support for granted; calculating that the Muslim vote is more important than the pink vote.
This is the second recent instance where Labour is seeking to enshrine legal privilege for religious adherents, while excluding protection for gays. It is enacting a new law against incitement to religious hatred, but refuses to prohibit incitement to homophobic hatred.
Although the Equality Bill fell with the calling of the general election, the government has promised to bring it back – unchanged – if Labour is re-elected.
Gay protests have been ignored by Downing Street. As a sop to the queer community, the government says it will address discrimination against homosexuals in goods and services in a Single Equalities Bill at some vague, indeterminate period in the future – probably not before 2008 at the earliest. Until then, lesbians and gay men will continue to suffer widespread discrimination and be denied any legal remedy.
Meanwhile, when the Equality Bill is retabled in the next session of parliament five key clauses will exclude gay rights:
Although clause 48 bans discrimination in the provision of goods and services on the grounds of religion, it does not prohibit such discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. This means discrimination against gay people by hotels, restaurants, bars and insurance companies will remain lawful by default.
Following the case of the Scottish hotelier who refused to accept a booking by a gay couple last year, the government promised to outlaw such discrimination. Now Labour has reneged on its pledge; leaving lesbians and gays without any legal protection or redress.
Clause 47 prohibits harassment of a person because of their religious belief. No similar protection against harassment is offered to people because of their sexuality. The victimisation of lesbians and gays by so-called ‘neighbours from hell’, for example, is not addressed by this bill’s tough new penalties for harassment.
Discrimination against religious minorities in housing and education is banned by Clauses 49 and 51. In contrast, homophobic discrimination in these fields is not outlawed. As a result, a landlord can refuse to rent a flat to a same-sex couple, and a faith school would be legally entitled to exclude a gay pupil.
Under clauses 81 and 82 of the Equality Bill, all public authorities will be required to promote equal opportunities for women, in the same way they are already required to combat race discrimination against ethnic minorities. But the bill places no duty on public authorities to promote equality for lesbians and gay men.
Public bodies, such as local councils and government departments, will remain free to take no action to protect the gay community from discrimination, harassment and violence. While action to combat race and gender discrimination will be a legal requirement for all public bodies, action against homophobia will remain a mere option. Why the double standards?
Labour is, it seems, creating a hierarchy of legal privilege, where women, black people and religious minorities are deemed more worthy of protection than lesbians and gay men.
The Equality Bill is just one of ten instances where the government is blocking gay rights. The others include refusing refuge to asylum seekers fleeing homophobic persecution; backing the ban on same-sex marriage; vetoing the inclusion of education against homophobia in the national curriculum guidelines on religious education; declining to make a commitment to equal opportunities a condition of charitable status; and failing to ensure the prosecution of homophobic singers who advocate the murder of lesbians and gay men. New Labour, old inequalities.