Several amendments to the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, by equal marriage critic Lord Dear were withdrawn last night – although the former Chief Constable has warned he may re-introduce additional measures seeking greater legal protections for opponents at a later stage.
Speaking in the Upper Chamber last night, Lord Dear said: “I feel that we have already heard that the Equality Act has been shot through a number of times as being inadequate. A number of cases have been cited. Clearly, the freedoms it set out to offer have not always been available.”
He added: “We have heard of a number of cases in your Lordships’ House tonight where people have expressed a view and been sued for it. I do not in that sense move away altogether from the point I am trying to make. There are people out there who are now very concerned about opening their mouths and saying anything at all, for fear of being dubbed homophobic.”
But Lord Dear was told by Baroness Stowell, the government’s spokesperson on Women and Equalities in the Lords that his “freedom of speech” amendment would be “damaging” to the bill – and he agreed to withdraw it.
She said: “The amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Dear, provide an opportunity for me again to make clear what is allowed under the law in terms of belief and expression of belief. I do not accept his argument that the law deals only with conduct and not with freedom of speech, because it explicitly does. People are clearly able to express themselves, to hold religious beliefs and express those beliefs, and to do so freely. Nothing in the bill restricts anyone’s right to express a view on marriage or anything else.”
Labour’s Shadow Equalities Minister in the Lords Baroness Thornton said: Our view is that the equality legislation – and freedom of thought, speech and belief protected by that legislation – covers these points. I can see why the noble Lord may wish to probe that, and I am sure that the Minister has more than adequate answers to it, but we do not think that the amendments are necessary.”
Answering claims that the tabling of his amendments amounted to homophobia, and that he should not stand in the way of last month’s successful House of Commons third reading of the bill, Lord Dear told a PinkNews.co.uk reader yesterday: “The amendments that I have seen are neither silly nor spiteful – they are honest attempts to try to address matters that a better and deeper considered bill would have considered. In particular, most are intended to provide some protection for those who fear disadvantage if the bill passes into law in its present form. That, as much as anything, is what equality is really about.”
He added: “Your conclusions as to homophobia are unfair, inaccurate and demonstrate, if I may say so, a massive lack of appreciation of most of the elements in play in this issue.”
Peer will resume debate of the bill tomorrow.