By Matthew Barrett
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Yesterday in the Lords, Conservative peer Baroness O'Cathain of The Barbican, attempted to scrap regulations that would allow religious groups to conduct civil partnerships in religious buildings.
"The purpose of my Prayer is to address the widely held concerns that the regulations threaten religious freedom. The Merits Committee has drawn them to the special attention of the House, because of the concerns expressed to it. The House must decide whether we reject them and invite the Government to think again. The regulations are intended to create an entirely voluntary system for places of worship that wish to register civil partnerships. That is the intention and I do not doubt the Government's sincerity, but senior lawyers advise that the interplay between the regulations and equality law could result in legal pressure on churches that do not want to register civil partnerships. That is what I want to address. In no way am I trying to block these regulations as a means of opposing civil partnerships. I have seen some deeply unpleasant briefing materials and, indeed, have received many obnoxious letters which impugn my motives. I have absolutely no hidden agenda. My sole reason for this Prayer is to attempt to stop churches having their religious freedoms taken away by local authorities or by litigious activists. The House must not pass regulations that fail to fulfil the intention of the Government."
The Upper House confirmed last night (by 179 to 135 votes) its concern that legislation against violence towards gay people must not become prohibition of any criticism of homosexuality.
The former Conservative Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, explained why Lord Waddington's free speech amendment - consistently supported by the Lords but rejected by Labour MPs - was necessary:
"As far as I am concerned, the main thrust of the clause that is in the Bill and remains in the Bill is against any kind of violence against those with a sexual orientation that is in question. The provision is very strong against that. Nothing in the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, detracts from that in the slightest. Over the years, this House has had the responsibility of maintaining the freedoms that have been hard won in our country. I believe that we should not flinch from doing that just because they happen to be attacked more than once, twice, three or four times."
Former Culture Secretary and Labour peer Lord (Chris) Smith explained why he opposed the amendment:
"The point that I was about to make is that legislation, in the signals that it sends to the world outside, can have an impact on behaviour way beyond the actual meaning of the words in the legislation. There is already a huge amount of anxiety and fear among the gay community about the increasing level of attacks. If the signal that the House sends is that it is all right to be intolerant, I fear that we will end up seeing more violence and more attacks and more difficulty for people simply because of their sexual orientation. That is why I feel so passionately. If this House stands up for free speech, as it so often has to, on this particular matter, it is at risk of sending the wrong signal to the wrong people outside."
The Bishop of Winchester attempted to address the points made by Lord Smith:
"I say to the noble Lord, Lord Smith, that signals matter, and they do. I share with him a horror of the fact that people are attacked, beaten up and killed because others believe them to be homosexual or because they are homosexual. That is manifestly wrong and wicked. But, as the noble Lord said, many others live increasingly in anxiety and fear. There is a very strong sense across quite a wide swathe not only of Christian opinion but of other opinion that the rights of those who hold the kind of views that this law would defend are seen as second-class. That is even there in the language of the noble Lord, Lord Smith. He said that it will be taken that it is all right to be intolerant. That is a particular kind of judgment on those who take the view that this amendment in defence of a piece of law seeks to sustain. Notwithstanding an unargued assumption of the Government that they must carry on in this way, it is most important that people of all sorts can be assured that, whether they are on street corners, in mosques, churches or synagogues, or be they journalists, academics, comedians or whatever, they are free to express views with which others may strongly disagree and which question the currently dominant political orthodoxy in these matters."
During yesterday's debate on encouraging or assisting suicide peers warned that any move towards a right-to-die would be a slippery slope to a duty-to-die for many disabled, very sick and vulnerable people.
Lord MacKay of Clashfern: "In my view, respect for and protection of human life are a defining characteristic of a civilised society. This country has long had protection in place in one form or another against assisted suicide. I quite understand what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, said about his amendment, but any proposal to alter the current position involves a judgment that a certain kind of life, or a certain span of life, has become unworthy of support from that principle. If you attempt to alter the law on suicide and the law relating to attempted suicide, you immediately bring to the attention of those who suffer from serious disability the point that, if another type of life is thought to be unworthy of protection, or is deemed unnecessary to protect because of the degree of suffering or weakness that may result from it, that judgment can be applied also to disabled people. That is the reason, I believe, why so many disabled people object to any change in the relevant law. That aspect has to be kept in mind when we are considering a matter of this kind."
Lord Waldegrave: "We have to be realistic. We have heard the phrase “predatory families”; there are also such things as predatory bureaucracies. The noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, said most exactly what worries me. This would open the way to a shift in perception across the board, and it would begin to shift the perception within the appalling decisions that have to be made about resource allocation within health services. It would open another front. The health service bureaucracy has to be able to rule that kind of resource allocation out by saying that that is not something that we will consider. We have heard wonderful examples today from patients, doctors, nurses and lawyers. All the individuals who work within these bureaucracies are of course sanctified, particularly when they are in your Lordships’ House. But bureaucracies do not have souls, and given broad signals, they can move quite quickly in ways that individuals looking at hard cases had originally not envisaged. I urge noble Lords to keep this light on red."
Lord Alton: "I know that many noble Lords do not agree with me on some of the beginning-of-life issues—I would not expect them to—but we should think back to the 1967 debates. The noble Lord, Lord St John of Fawsley, is present. He spoke in another place during those debates, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Knight, who was present earlier. During those debates many warnings were given about how we could end up with doctors simply stamping certificates in order to agree things. That is precisely what happens today. Seven million abortions later, surely no one can doubt that that early decision, which was taken without due and proper consideration, has led to unimaginable consequences. Therefore, I simply urge that, before we take an enormously important decision of this kind, we give it proper thought and reflection. Indeed, the Director of Public Prosecutions, Sir Kenneth Macdonald, whom the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, quoted in his introductory remarks, said precisely that—that there should be a profound debate and widespread public consultation before any change is made in the law."
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