Equality campaigners divided over "wrecking" amendment to gay marriage bill

While some support the introduction of civil partnerships for heterosexuals, others warn of a "dark" and "cynical" attempt by Tory MPs to destroy the bill.

After devoting last week to an esoteric debate over Europe, this week is set to be another in which the Conservative Party demonstrates its increasingly tenuous relationship with the modern world. The gay marriage bill is back in the Commons for its report stage and David Cameron is likely to face a revolt on the scale of that in February when 136 Conservative MPs opposed the legislation.

Before the main vote tomorrow, MPs will vote tonight on an amendment tabled by former Tory minister Tim Loughton that would extend civil partnerships to heterosexual couples. Loughton, who opposes same-sex marriage, insists that the amendment has been submitted in good faith, but the government is briefing that it is an attempt to "wreck" the legislation. (It's worth pausing to note the oddity of Tory MPs opposing gay marriage, which won't "undermine" the institution of marriage, while supporting heterosexual partnerships, which certainly will.) It has warned that the change could delay the passage of the bill by up to two years and cost the government an additional £4bn in pension liabilities. On the Today programme this morning, equalities minister Maria Miller said: 

Look, I want to be seeing marriages being undertaken under this new bill as early as next summer and to actually put in at this stage such a fundamental change I believe risks that and it risks significant delay and I think those that are supporting it need to be very aware of that.

Miller's words were a warning to Labour, which has pledged to support the amendment on the grounds of equality. It has dismissed the government's warnings as "farcical", noting that the supposed size of the "price tag" has grown from £3bn to £4bn in five days. Some Labour MPs also believe that ministers may be preparing to use the passage of the amendment as a convenient excuse to abandon the bill. But other equality campaigners echo the government's concerns. 

Despite long supporting the introduction of civil partnerships for heterosexuals, the Lib Dems are set to vote against the amendment for fear that it will wreck the bill. Lynne Featherstone, the former equalities minister, said: "The people pushing these changes are not those with records of supporting equality and marriage rules that accommodate a diversity of couples.

"The proposals are coming from those who are avowed and determined opponents of equal marriage. Have they suddenly become converts to the cause of equality?

"Given their public statements I fear what is at work here is rather darker and more cynical – a deliberate attempt to wreck the legislation."

In addition, the gay rights group Stonewall has said that it is "anxious about anything that could delay this much needed change in the law to bring about marriage equality". 

But other campaigners, most notably Peter Tatchell, have urged MPs to support the amendment to correct a long standing injustice. Asked if he was concerned that Loughton and other Tory MPs were proposing it simply to "wreck" the bill, he said: "Yes, I am concerned but we should do the right thing, regardless of their shabby motives. Equality for all. You can't fault that." 

The outcome is now likely to rest on whether the government can persuade Labour that its warnings are sincere and that it should reconsider its position.

David Cameron addresses guests at the gay pride reception in the garden at 10 Downing Street, in central London on June 16, 2010. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle