Government backs plan to tackle the UK’s ‘last anti-gay law’
The government has backed an MP’s battle to remove one of the last UK-wide laws that discriminate against people for having gay sex.
The Merchant Shipping (Homosexual Conduct) Bill, which was submitted by Tory MP John Glen last week, would address one of the last remaining homophobic measures in UK law.
It would address a reference in maritime shipping law that includes “homosexual acts” as grounds for dismissal from the crew of merchant ships.
The provisions, which were introduced when gay sex in the Navy was decriminalised in 1994, are already rendered unenforceable by existing equality law – making the repeal a symbolic measure.
Submitting his bill on Friday, Mr Glen said: “When it comes to employment, in the merchant navy or anywhere else, what matters is a person’s ability to do the job—not their gender, age, ethnicity, religion or sexuality.
“Many will be surprised—astonished, even—to learn that this anomaly still remains on the statute book. There is no place in our society today for employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, through which one provision applies to heterosexual individuals and another to homosexual individuals.
“The Bill repeals the now defunct provision that authorised the dismissal of a merchant seaman on the grounds of homosexual conduct. It is the last such provision penalising homosexual activity that remains on our statute book, and it should be removed.”
He continued: “By removing the distinction and applying the provisions to all individuals, passing the Bill will affirm this House’s commitment to justice and equality and show that there is no place in society for discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
“What matters in employment is the ability to do the job, nothing else. And what matters in society is how you can contribute and serve others, not your background, race or sexuality.”
He added: “Our statute book is complex enough without the retention of defunct and superseded provisions. Apart from anything else, this Bill is a useful tidying-up exercise to make the status of the current law regarding employment discrimination absolutely clear, and, as I have explained, it gives important reassurance to anyone who might be concerned about an apparent provision in our law.”
The bill passed a key legislative hurdle after Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport Andrew Jones spoke in favour.
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Explaining government support for the bill, Mr Jones said: “The wording currently on the statute book has no effect, but it represents a historical hangover from when it was possible that a seafarer — indeed, any employee — could be dismissed for being gay. That is no longer the case, but the laws that we pass in this place and that form our statute book represent, both practically and in the signals they send, the established morals and values of our country.
“It is right therefore that when the statute book contains wording that is inconsistent with those values we should change that wording.
“For that reason, the Government are happy to state now, formally, that we support this measure.”
Of course, the removal of anti-LGBT legislation from the statute books does not mean that all legislative goals have been met on LGBT equality across the UK.
Same-sex marriage continues to be banned in Northern Ireland, where the dominant Democratic Unionist Party have pledged to block all progress, while across the UK activists continue to call for LGBT-inclusive sex and relationship education to be made statutory, and for reforms to gender recognition laws.
Green MP Caroline Lucas accused right-wing Tory MPs of leading a lengthy debate on the shipping bill in order to scupper her legislation on inclusive sex ed.
She said: “Although I completely support the Bill that preceded mine, there is an irony that has not gone unnoticed: Members have spent many hours debating a wholly uncontroversial Bill, while my Bill is about tackling discrimination and bullying around lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues. It is a great shame that there is not more time to debate it.”