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Equality (Sexual Orientation)

Volume 456: debated on Wednesday 7 February 2007

1. On what basis the timetable was set for the introduction of the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006. (118050)

The timetable for the introduction of the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006 was set to ensure that regulations were in place for 1 January 2007. The Government wished to have the regulations in Northern Ireland at the earliest opportunity following the consultation.

Did not a fact that the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments drew the attention of this House to the fact that the regulations are defective in no fewer than five areas? The Secretary of State bulldozed these new laws—which promote gay rights over religious freedom—through Parliament, not in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland, but because of his own political ambition to become the next Deputy Prime Minister.

The hon. Gentleman’s contribution does not do him good service. The House of Lords voted overwhelmingly for the regulations, and the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly for the regulations. They did so because they recognised that the regulations are fair and proper for gay and lesbian people in the community at large. The Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments has made some comments, and we have agreed to lay amending regulations based on them. However, those comments do not detract from the main resolution, which has been passed by this House. Indeed, the measure was passed and agreed by the Assembly in Northern Ireland on a 38:38 vote. The hon. Gentleman should examine the equality issues and share the aspiration of this House and another place to support equality in the community.

The regulations were certainly not passed by the Assembly—it is beyond me how a tied vote represents a pass. The four main denominations in Northern Ireland and many political representatives oppose the regulations. They believe that they offend against religious freedom in Northern Ireland. The regulations were railroaded through, despite the fact that the Government held them back for the rest of the United Kingdom. Why is Northern Ireland continually treated as a place to experiment with such laws on behalf of the rest of the UK? This is about political expediency rather than recognising the will of the people of Northern Ireland, the majority of whom oppose these regulations.

The hon. Gentleman proposed the vote in the Northern Ireland Assembly to reject the regulations, and that vote was not carried. The other place voted overwhelmingly for the regulations, and this House has done so, too. In Committee, the regulations were carried by 15 votes to three. They were supported not only by my hon. Friends, but by Opposition Members. The regulations are fair and proper, there has been consultation and I have met the Churches. The Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Paul Goggins), will discuss with the adoption agencies how to implement the regulations. I believe that they are fair and proper, and I commend them to the House.

Does the Minister accept that although the regulations and the process were not perfect, there is, as he has said, strong support for the regulations from Opposition Members? The hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) might note that only one Conservative turned up to vote against the regulations in the Standing Committee, which suggests that the Conservative party’s objections are not very deep. There was only one vote against from the Conservatives.

I was grateful for the support of the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) in Committee. As was his legitimate right, the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) voted against the regulations—I respect his opinions, too. The regulations are about protecting fairness and justice and ensuring that there is no discrimination and that people have the opportunity to receive goods and services, whatever their sexual orientation; they are not about discriminating against people’s views. People are entitled to hold views and to preach views, and the Churches are entitled to hold views, but they are not entitled to practise discrimination on the receipt of goods and services.