With the general election just a matter of weeks away, PinkNews looks back at the Coalition’s record of delivery for the LGBT community and assesses where improvements could have been made.
This is almost certainly the best example of the Coalition working together to achieve a ground-breaking equality reform. David Cameron’s support for legalising same-sex marriage took many people by surprise, not least large sections of his party.
As pointed out by Labour, the law for England and Wales relied on Labour votes for it to be carried through the Commons. More than half of Tory MPs opposed the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act at second reading. Nevertheless, the Prime Minister’s backing and pride for the legislation has remained intact. Nick Clegg has frequently declared same-sex marriage to be a hallmark example of his party’s presence in Government.
The Liberal Democrats jointly prepared the groundwork for the Act with Lynne Featherstone working closely with LGBT stakeholders in the consultation phase. Deficiencies in the law remain, not least the Spousal Veto, imbalances over pensions and a failure to extend civil partnerships to heterosexuals, yet same-sex marriage was a genuine cross-party effort, which even former Prime Minister Tony Blair remarked, was a surprising thing to see at Westminster.
The Coalition has made tackling homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying a key priority in education with senior figures including David Cameron and Nick Clegg regularly speaking of the need to improve the experiences of LGBT students. The Department of Education has stressed a zero tolerance approach to bullying. In October last year, Education Secretary and Women and Equalities Minister, Nicky Morgan, announced £2 million to fund projects to address the issue in schools. The news was welcomed by LGBT stakeholders and teaching unions.
However, campaigners remain dismayed by the failure of the Government to introduce statutory LGBT inclusive Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) for all schools. In 2013 Michael Gove, as Education Secretary, was reluctant to even update the 13-year-old SRE guidance for teachers, a decision that caused consternation from Nick Clegg.
Whilst Mr Gove’s successor has made conciliatory suggestions on SRE, Nicky Morgan has failed to announce support for making it a compulsory requirement for all schools. Having initially voted against Labour attempts to introduce statutory SRE in 2013, the Lib Dems announced the policy as a manifesto pledge in August last year.
Despite a landmark ruling by the Supreme Court in 2010, the Government has continued to preside over a shambolic system for LGBT asylum seekers that continues to fail in providing protection. Over the past five years, human rights groups, MPs and lawyers have frequently documented alleged cases of the Home Office deporting LGBT asylum seekers back to countries such as Uganda where they face violence.
The Home Office has always denied the claims on a case-by-case basis. But in May last year, the Home Secretary ordered a review by the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, John Vine, after facing harsh criticism for lapses.
His report detailed widespread failings: a fifth of interviews by Home Office caseworkers contained some stereotyping and a tenth contained questions of an unsatisfactory nature.
Mr Vine expressed particular concern about the treatment of cases in the Detained Fast Track (DFT) process.
Last summer, the High Court ruled that DFT, a system used to process the vast majority of cases, was “unlawful”.
Earlier this month, a cross-party group of MPs and peers criticised the treatment of LGBT asylum seekers detained in immigration detention centres across the UK. The report detailed widespread abuse and bullying by detention staff.
Ahead of publication of the Vine Report, Lib Dem Justice Minister Simon Hughes conceded that the Home Office still had a long way to go in making improvements.
LGBT health provision is also an area where the Coalition could arguably have performed better.
In recent months HIV charities have expressed increasing alarm at the apparent halving of the budget for the national HIV prevention programme for England. Public Health Minister Jane Ellison denied this was the case in March, yet campaigners continue to warn of a funding gap and uncertainty. Gay and bisexual men continue to be disproportionately affected by HIV. Figures published last year showed one in eight gay and bisexual men in London is now living with HIV.
A decision to extend the HPV vaccine so it could benefit gay and bisexual men has been delayed. Minutes released by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) earlier this month showed the committee had expressed questions about the cost of extending the vaccine. A vaccination programme against the human papillomavirus began in 2008 in the UK, but only among girls, on the grounds that this would curb the spread of the infection to boys as well.
Heterosexual men gain protection from the virus through herd immunity if women are vaccinated, but no such protection is afforded to gay men, or bisexual men who do not have sex with women.
HPV can cause cervical, penile, anal and throat cancers, as well as genital and anal warts.
The Department of Health said it will only act once the JCVI has provided it with advice, however campaigners believe the Government could start now to extend the HPV programme and that it should benefit all boys regardless of sexuality. UK figures from 2011 show 47,500 men get genital warts each year, and more than 2,000 contract anal, oral or penile cancers as a result.
There has been partial success in the campaign to prevent NHS staff from referring gay people to third party therapists who may seek to provide gay-to-straight conversion therapy.
In June 2013, several MPs signed an Early Day Motion to ensure that “NHS medical professionals cannot inflict this cruel treatment on their patients”.
Labour MP Geraint Davies tabled a bill aimed at banning gay-to-straight conversion therapy, describing it as an “awful practice”.
Lib Dem Health Minister Norman Lamb responded by saying the practice was “utterly abhorrent” but that the Government remained opposed to the statutory regulation of psychotherapists on the grounds of cost – a decision that angered campaigners.
In January, NHS England issued new guidance which affirms that the discredited practice should not be offered to patients.
The Memorandum of Understanding on Conversion Therapy in the UK also ensures that training will be provided to NHS staff, in order to help them support LGBT people who seek such therapy.
Nick Clegg welcomed the news, tweeting: “Thinking you can cure homosexuality is abhorrent and potentially harmful. Pleased to see this commitment.”
Improving provisions and services for the trans community have remained very much an area of work-in-progress under the Coalition. A failure to address the Spousal Veto in the same-sex marriage law for England and Wales continues to cause dismay among many in the trans community. The veto currently means the requirement for a married trans person to obtain written consent from their spouse before they can be granted gender recognition.
Scotland’s same-sex marriage law successfully managed to remove the veto in its legislative process. In areas of health, trans people continue to face prolonged delays in accessing health services, notably appointments at the Charing Cross Gender Identity Clinic.
The Coalition has also failed to make progress on implementing gender-neutral passports. Back in 2011, the Home Office said it was going to consider the policy. Almost five years later and campaigners are still waiting for a concrete commitment.
International LGBT rights
The Coalition has had a mixed record when it comes to incorporating LGBT rights as part of its foreign policy. At times the Government has been very vocal on speaking about the importance of upholding the rights of LGBT people throughout the world. In the run-up to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, Nick Clegg regularly criticised Russia’s decision to implement homophobic censorship laws and what it meant for LGBT athletes. Much was made of David Cameron’s absence from the Games – although whether that was down to conventional Downing Street protocol about the Winter Olympics, or wider opposition to President Putin’s diplomatic behaviour, remained unclear.
Unlike his predecessor Philip Hammond, William Hague was keen to raise the subject of LGBT rights several times as Foreign Secretary. He often expressed dismay at the arrival of new anti-gay laws across parts of Africa. In February last year, Mr Hague said he was “deeply saddened” by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s decision to sign the country’s Anti-Homosexuality law.
Nick Clegg said it was “an abhorrent backwards step for human rights”. Yet the political rhetoric has often failed to be met with policy outcomes. Ministerial visits with leaders such as the Sultan of Brunei and President Museveni have continued. In February last year, International Development Minister Lynne Featherstone said events in Uganda showed taking a “subtle approach” on LGBT rights “clearly didn’t work” and won’t deter similar legislation in other parts of Africa.
Closer to home, the deafening silence of the Coalition when it comes to the anti-gay tendencies of the Democratic Unionist Party in the Northern Ireland Assembly simply reinforces the sense that the province has fallen behind the rest of the UK on LGBT rights. Whilst sensitives regarding the devolved nature of Northern Ireland politics appear to be in the minds of the Coalition, the bottom line at present is that it is UK taxpayers who are continuing to foot the bill for the DUP’s legal challenges against gay equality rulings.
- Overall score for the Coalition on LGBT issues – 6/10