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Northern Ireland assembly split on vote over Sexual Orientation Regulations as Labour ex-minister calls for Parliament to reject regulations more readily

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This morning a debate in the transitional Northern Ireland Assembly took place on a motion requesting that the Northern Ireland Secretary, Peter Hain, withdraw the increasingly controversial Northern Ireland Sexual Orientation Regulations.


After a debate outlining the procedural and substantive flaws with the Government’s fast-tracked proposals, Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) were split with 39 voting to demand the withdrawal of the Regulations and 39 voting to keep them.


Outlining a clear desire to protect the rights of homosexuals, but also to safeguard faith groups, MLAs who opposed the Regulations represented concerns that the proposals were ill-thought through, had not been properly consulted on, were dangerously broad, and would have the unintended consequence of being “a charter for persecution of any of those with a moral conscience”.


With 50% of the Northern Ireland Assembly openly criticising the Government’s approach to these Regulations, the pressure will grow on Peter Hain, who has been reported as having caused a Cabinet split after refusing to reconsider his approach (The Independent, 8th December).


Thomas Cordrey, Public Policy Analyst at the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship, commented “With such a clear and public expression of concern about these Regulations from the Northern Ireland Assembly, it is hard to see that the Government’s refusal to listen to reasoned arguments on this matter fits with their plea in the St Andrew’s agreement that whilst devolution is re-established, politicians act ‘in good faith and in a spirit of genuine partnership’”.


The debate in Northern Ireland comes on the back of a report by Labour ex-minister Lord Filkin in the Parliament ‘House’ magazine that MPs and Peers “should be less inhibited about rejecting secondary legislation” in the same week that his own Lords Committee on the Merits of Statutory Instruments recommended that “These [Sexual Orientation] Regulations are drawn to the special attention of the House on the ground that they give rise to issues of public policy likely to be of interest to the House”  - a significant move in light of the Labour Peer Lord Cunningham’s report in November, that Parliament ought to seriously consider rejection of Regulations which the Merits Committee had drawn to the special attention of the House.


Lord Filkin commented that improved scrutiny of secondary legislation in this manner ‘does not collapse Parliament or the government. It usually leads to the government rushing back with an amending piece of secondary legislation which sorts out the problem.’ This is the essence of the call made by many in the Northern Ireland Assembly today.


Thomas Cordrey, Public Policy Analyst, the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship

Andrea Minichiello Williams, Public Policy Officer,



NB INCLUDED BELOW, ADVERT FEATURED ON THE INSIDE FRONT-COVER OF THIS WEEK’S EDITION OF PARLIAMENT’S ‘HOUSE’ MAGAZINE




The legal impact of the

Sexual Orientation Regulations


The aim of these Regulations is to secure freedom and equality under the law for all communities in the United Kingdom. However, as the following legal information shows, these Regulations, as currently drafted, will provoke an unnecessary and unwanted conflict between the faith communities and the gay and lesbian community.

 

An exemption is therefore proposed to resolve this conflict. The exemption will have a negligible impact on the gay community but will allow people of faith to decline to assist in activities which are contrary to their strongly held religious beliefs, and thus preserve the long-cherished liberty of the British people to exercise freedom of conscience.



GENERAL

 

The Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2006 (No. 439) (the ‘NI SORs’) will come into force on 1st January 2007 without any debate or vote in Parliament.

 

HARASSMENT

 

The Regulations make harassment on the grounds of sexual orientation illegal (Regulation 3(3)), despite the fact that 1) the consultation about the Regulations made it clear this was not the Government’s intention, 2) no mention of a harassment law was made in the questions asked of the public in the consultation and 3) the House of Lords previously argued strongly against introducing such a law.


EDUCATION

 

The NI SORs 1) do affect the curriculum (by virtue of Regulation 10(b) and the Education (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 (NI. 11)), 2) contain no exemptions for faith schools and 3) mean that a pupil will be able to sue a faith school or an individual teacher for harassment if they perceive that the teaching or promotion of marriage over homosexual civil partnership ‘violates their dignity’ as a gay student.

 

SERVICE PROVIDERS

 

Under the NI SORs 1) it will be illegal for a Christian printer in Northern Ireland to refuse to print material promoting gay sex, 2) it will be illegal for an Islamic wedding photographer to refuse to attend and take publicity photographs at a gay Civil Partnership ceremony and 3) it will be illegal for a Jewish conference centre to refuse to allows its premises to be used by an organisation promoting homosexual practice.

 

FREEDOM OF CONSCIENCE AMENDMENT

 

Our proposal is to insert a clause into the NI SORs which reads:

 

Nothing in these Regulations shall require a person to promote or assist homosexual practice in a manner which is contrary to that person’s strongly held religious beliefs’


If you support the calls of other MPs and Peers that there should be a full and open debate in both Houses of Parliament regarding these Regulations, with the opportunity for amendments to be made to ameliorate the SORs, please lend your support (in the Commons) to Early Day Motion (EDM) Number 317 ‘SEXUAL ORIENTATION DISCRIMINATION (S.R. (N.I.) 2006 No.439)’ and (in the Lords) to Lord Morrow’s prayer for the annulment of the Regulations.


ONLY IF THERE IS SUFFICIENT SUPPORT AMONGST MPs AND PEERS WILL THE GOVERNMENT ALLOW PARLIAMENTARY TIME FOR SUCH A DEBATE.

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