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Interview: Encouraging gays to take their place in Parliament

Tony Grew March 24, 2009
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Anne Begg is an instantly recognisable presence in the House of Commons. The former English teacher is the first wheelchair user to be elected as an MP.

Chatty, amiable and refreshingly straightforward, Ms Begg can often be spotted in the chamber, in her chair at the side of the Labour benches.

Born with a rare genetic condition, Gauchers disease, she has used a wheelchair since 1984, the year after she joined the Labour Party.

Ms Begg, 53, has described her chair as a “liberator,” and her presence in the House is undoubtedly an inspiration to thousands of disabled people across the country.

The MP for Aberdeen South since 1997, she has been active as a member of the House of Commons Chairmen’s Panel, where she deputises for the Speaker in Westminster Hall debates and on Public Bill committees.

She also serves on the Work and Pensions Select Committee, is secretary of the All Party Parliamentary BBC Group, and chairs several other All Party Groups.

In November Ms Begg was appointed vice-chair of a Speaker’s Commission looking at ways to improve the numbers of women, ethnic minorities and people with disabilities in Parliament.

Speaker’s Conferences are rare. The last one took place in 1977 and there were only five Conferences in the 20th century.
Gay and lesbian representation was not part of the Conference’s remit.

When its formation was announced, Commons leader Harriet Harman told MPs she “hoped” it would include at least one gay Member of Parliament.

There was understandable disappointment when not only was no openly gay member appointed to the Conference, but one of the most homophobic politicians in the House was asked to serve.

Rev William McCrea, the MP for South Antrim, is a member of the Democratic Unionist Party and a minister in the Free Presbyterian church. Both organisations are outspoken in their homophobia.

He became notorious in Northern Ireland for sharing platforms with Protestant terrorists.

The Free Presbyterian church mounts a yearly counter-protest at Belfast Pride, which it regards as a celebration of sodomy, and his party colleagues have repeatedly attacked gay people as an abomination.
It is expected that gay equality organisation Stonewall will be called to give evidence to the Conference, which must report and make recommendations before the end of this Parliament.

Junior minister Angela Eagle is the only out lesbian either the Commons or the Lords. There are around a dozen out gay MPs and three openly gay peers.

The Treasury estimates that 6% of the UK population is gay, lesbian or bisexual.

That means there should be at least 39 LGB MPs and 42 peers.
In an interview in her Commons office, Ms Begg told that the Conference “will gather cross-party support” for “a thorny electoral issue.”

“The 1916 Conference came up with votes for women and the 1965 one came up with votes for 18-year-olds – big ideas.”

Ms Begg said the purpose of the current Conference, which is currently hearing evidence, is to “open the door” to groups who may not feel Parliament is for them.

“You can’t do big electoral change unless you have an all-party consensus.

“If one party wants something but none of the others do, if they are in government and try to force it through, they could find it reversed the next time around.

“You can’t tinker with electoral reform every couple of years, it takes time to bed in.”

The Conference was not originally going to consider disabled people – that was quickly changed.

The idea of asking why gay and lesbian people are so under-represented reportedly caused friction at Westminster, with some MPs considering sexual orientation a personal matter, or even a lifestyle choice.

Ms Begg told that at a “private meeting” of the MPs chosen to serve on the Conference, “we decided that under additional matters sexual orientation was a legitimate thing for the conference to look at. We could have decided “no it isn’t.”

“It is not in the remit but we took the principled decision that it is something we can look at. What comes out the other end of the sausage machine, I cannot say.”

She denies gay representation has been downgraded.

“If anything it has been upgraded – the original motion was for women and ethnic minorities. It was to try and broaden the scope in a way that brings people on board.

“There are a range of views. I can appreciate that some communities are impatient for change, of course they are, but change has to be sustainable and get wider acceptance.”

Rev McCrea was included because the DUP, as the largest party in Northern Ireland, was invited to take part.

While many gay people were horrified that such a reactionary voice should be there at all, Ms Begg sees an advantage.

“Remember, what we come up with, he will have to sign up to it.

“What we hope to achieve in the end is a unanimous report. I do not know if we will manage that, but the potential is there.

“They (the DUP) could have chosen not to put anybody on the committee at all, but they did.”

Ms Begg praises the progress made in Northern Ireland despite the outlandish views of some of its more colourful elected representatives.

“The interesting thing is the way the Equality Commission has worked in Northern Ireland.

“It has been a model, they did not have individual commissions and they have the model of how to deal with equality. If you are discriminated against, you are covered. You do not have to pigeonhole. All the political parties in Northern Ireland are signed up to it.

“Some of the problems we have with the disability legislation is that you have to say to people “what part of the legislation do you fall under?”

“Somebody with a birth mark, who is clearly discriminated against or stigmatised because of that birth mark, can’t get redress under the law as it is at present, because they do not fulfil the definition of a disabled person under the Disability Discrimination Act.”

Earlier this year the Conference heard evidence from Operation Black Vote. The idea of all-ethnic minority shortlists in some constituencies was discussed.

The Labour party policy of all-women shortlists was highly controversial when it was introduced before the 1997 election. It was intended to alter the gender balance in the Commons, but they were ruled illegal in 1996.

In 2002 the government introduced the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act, which exempts the selection of candidates in parliamentary elections from sex discrimination legislation.

Can all-ethnic minority shortlists really be the way forward? Ms Begg is cautious.

“That is something for the conference to decide.

“We know there is a big debate within the ethnic minority communities as to whether this is the best way forward. There are very strong arguments on both sides and bearing in mind we have to come up with a consensual position, it would be wrong not to consider it.”

However, she rejects the idea of a disabled-only shortlist.

“I wouldn’t support it, but I did come from an all-women shortlist.

“So I do support the concept of positive action, because I would not be here today if it was not for the all-women shortlist.

“Not because I could not have competed with the men, but it never even occurred to me to be an MP. We want to get people interested in being an MP who had never thought about it.

“I can use my own example. I had no intention of being an MP. I was involved in politics, I was active in my trade union, was an elected member of the General Teaching Council for Scotland, so I was quite well-known in teaching circles as a Labour party member and activist.

“I was approached by people from the constituency who said “it is an all-women shortlist, we have been looking around for good women, would you be interested in putting your name forward.”

“I decided to go for it.

“The all-women shortlist activated a mechanism for people to go out and look for candidates. That may be slightly different for other minority groups.

“I suspect there may be lots of others that desperately want to be an MP but face different barriers.

“The shortlist brought me as a disabled women in, but it could just have easily been a woman from an ethnic minority or a lesbian woman. That mechanism opens out the whole process.”

Ms Begg points to “inherent barriers” in how the selection process works, not just within Labour but in all parties.

She claims these barriers can impact not just on gays, ethnic minorities, the disabled and women, but also young men with a family.

“It can be a barrier to 90% of the population, if truth be told, because of the lifestyle.

“There is no shortage of white men desperate to become MPs, but there is a shortage of people from other groups. We have to ask the question why. Some will be because of the barriers and that puts them off, but others are not even on the first step, they are not even thinking it is something they would like to do. We have to tackle both.

“In terms of being gay and lesbian, the electorate will vote for an openly gay person, which we did not know until 1997. I understand, speaking to Ben Bradshaw and others, they had the most awful opponents, just dreadful, but the people still voted for them.”

Some have argued we are now beyond identity politics in this country. Ms Begg acknowledges progress has been made but disagrees.

“I would love to think that we are there but I do not think we are.

“If we are getting there it is because of the work of a Labour government – an equal age of consent, because we have allowed civil partnerships and gay people can adopt.

“What that legislation has done is normalise gay and lesbian people because they can do the things everyone else can. They are no longer out on the fringes. Once you get there, you start to divide along left-right politics rather than identity. But we have a long way to go, especially from a disabled person’s point of view.”

From a London perspective, Scotland can appear somewhat intolerant towards gay people. The Scottish Roman Catholic Church regularly indulges in what can only be described as queer-bashing.

Earlier this month Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, claimed that “less than two per cent of the population is homosexual and a minority of this group are in a stable relationship,” assertions with no factual basis.

In January a Church spokesman claimed: “There is an overwhelming body of evidence showing that same-sex relationships are inherently unstable and reduce the life expectancy of those involved.”

Ms Begg admits her homeland has problems.

“We pride ourselves on being egalitarian and left-wing, that is why we are traditionally Labour, but at the same time there is this odd, not even small-c conservatism, in some areas.

“A lot of it is in west central Scotland, where you have a large immigrant population from Ireland.

“There are all these contradictions going on in Scotland. There are Catholics I know who are horrified at what the Catholic Church is saying, as with the whole issue of stem cell research.

“At the same time we still like to pretend that we are this modern country, but there is something that keeps pulling us back. I think the majority of people in Scotland are on the right side, meaning they are not homophobic, they do genuinely believe the Robbie Burns poem “A man is a man for all that.”

“What the priesthood is saying is not what the people think.”

Ms Begg is reluctant to take the mantle of a role model for disabled people, as she is so often described. Instead she pays homage to Britain’s first blind Cabinet minister.

“David Blunkett was an inspiration. The fact that he was already elected made it easier for me. My first month down here (in 1997) he was Secretary of State for Education, and he invited me in to go through the sort of things I needed to look out for.

“Because his disability is so different to mine there was not a comparison of how to deal with a particular issue, but it made me feel that I was not alone. If it had not been for him and Jack Ashley, I would never have been here. It is not easy being first.”

Mr Ashley became profoundly deaf in 1967, the year after he was first elected, as a result of complications from an ear operation. He served as an MP until 1992 and now sits in the Lords.

“When I arrived on May 6th 1997, I got this wonderful office. I got spoiled. They had thought ahead that they may have a disabled person. There are plenty of folk in wheelchairs in the House of Lords. They had already been spending money and putting in ramps.

“I loved it – I came here from a working class background in the north east of Scotland, my greatest ambition was to become a teacher, which I had to fight to become, and I came down to this place and I felt at home.

“That’s the message I want to get out to people, that despite everything you see on TV, I had not one scintilla of doubt that I did the right thing in getting elected. It has been a huge privilege and if I can make it easier for others to follow in my footsteps then that is part of the job I want to do.”

Related topics: England, London

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