Tag Archives: Parliament

Thank You.

The passage of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill through both Houses of Parliament has been everything from heartfelt to outrageous, sensible to downright absurd. It has raised fears of hoards of aggressive homosexuals and of the real and present danger of a lesbian queen. It has prompted suggestions from noble lords that they should be allowed to marry their sons and reasonable contributions from interested religious parties.

The contributions of Yvette Cooper and Sir Gerald Howarth this evening epitomised the contrast between how the debate has been constructed on both sides. This evening also saw the Bill clear its final parliamentary hurdle and make its way to Royal Assent and into law.

The most positive thing about the passage of the Bill is that it has enjoyed not only cross-party support in Parliament but broad support with the public as a whole. It is heartening to see so many people in this country supporting the rights of others to marry, to share that love and commitment with their friends and family and to enjoy equal treatment under the law.

The passing of this Bill has many practical implications. It means that heterosexual people and homosexual people have the same pension rights. It means that the protections enjoyed by heterosexual partners are no longer denied to someone on the basis of sexuality. It means that there will be a lot more fabulous weddings. And yes, it also means more money for the divorce lawyers in years to come.

For me, however, the passing into law of equal marriage is not about pension plans and entitlements, as important as they are, but it’s about something much more. It’s about acknowledgement and acceptance.

When I was born in 1990, the age of consent for homosexuals was twenty-one as opposed to sixteen for heterosexuals. Section 28 meant that telling gay teenagers that it was alright to be themselves was illegal in schools. Homophobia was rife. Progress came, slowly but surely. In 2001 the age of consent was equalised. In 2003, the year I became a teenager, Section 28 was abolished and gay kids could finally be told in the open that their sexuality was not something to be ashamed of. In 2005 we had the introduction of Civil Partnerships and today, in 2013, we have the legalisation of marriage for homosexual couples. In twenty three years the political and societal change has been enormous.

This new law won’t change the fact that some gay kids face bullying. What it will do, however, is give the gay teenagers suffering this kind of abuse the knowledge that the country does not treat them differently. That the law does not treat them differently. That, with the exception of blood donation, they are not prevented from doing anything on the grounds of their sexuality.

Homophobia, like all other kinds of prejudice, is a taught behaviour. No-one is born hating gay people or opposing their right to love and equality. This kind of attitude is taught. Nothing will change the fact that some parents will still indoctrinate their children with unfounded, vicious hatred but children growing up in a society where marriage can be between a man and a woman, a man and a man or a woman and a woman will be children who grow up accepting this as normal and as something to be celebrated. A wedding and a marriage will be a celebration of all kinds of love, not just one.

There will be a lot written about this Bill and its legal implications. There will be support, opposition and apathy. Much of it will be important and reasonable. For now, though, I have only one thing to say.

From today, I have a future where the law does not discriminate against me on the grounds of my sexuality. I have a future where any relationship I am in will have the same status as any which my straight friends form part of. I have a future where I can, at some future date with a person I may or may not have even met yet, stand and declare my love and commitment in the same way as anyone else. I have a future where I know I will not be denied marriage. I have a future as an equal citizen of my country. There are no words adequate enough to explain what that really means so these will have to do-

To everyone who has supported this Bill in Parliament, in private, in public and in society, from the bottom of my heart, thank you.

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The ‘Bedroom Tax’ narrative is damaging legitimate concerns

If there is one word likely to spark the indignation of voters across the political spectrum then it is tax. The Right tend to loathe it universally and the Left love it, but only when it’s used to punish the people they don’t like and loathe it when it’s applied, apparently unfairly, on the least well off. It is no great surprise then that the new under-occupation housing benefit reduction measures contained within the Welfare Reform Act (2012) and due to come in to force in April have been given the moniker ‘Bedroom Tax’. Granted, this is a lot more catchy and a guaranteed headline grabber and convenient hashtag and has been seized upon by Labour supporters, councillors and Members of Parliament with gusto. Unfortunately it is also misleading, and deliberately so.

A tax and a benefit cut are fundamentally different things. A tax is levied by the government on income or a product, for example. It is a new contribution to the coffers of the Exchequer. A benefit cut is a reduction in the amount of money that leaves the Exchequer’s coffers and makes its way to the pockets of citizens. Both are politically as well as economically motivated. Both are potentially contentious. Both are also very different things. The number of Labour MPs, people who wish to form the next Government, who do not know the difference between the two is startling. Either that or they are shamelessly and damagingly misleading the public for personal and political gain.

The facts, which are so infrequently reported, are as follows-

  • If a tenant has one more bedroom than they need, they will lose 14% of their housing benefit.
  • If a tenant has two more bedrooms than they need, they will lose 25% of their housing benefit.
  • This brings the public rental sector in line with the private rental sector.

In principle, I agree with the Coalition’s decision not to give housing benefit to council and housing association tenants where they are under occupying a house which is already state subsidised. It surely sends out the welcome long-term message that the state, whilst continuing to provide housing for those who need it, will no longer subsidise people’s luxuries because, yes, having a spare room is a luxury. It is something many people in the private sector could only dream of. Others may disagree. There may be those who believe that this is completely justified and that is, of course, their prerogative, providing they justify it using the facts.

Despite my broad support for the proposals, however, there are concerns. Firstly, there is the real and legitimate concern about how people are going to cope when their monthly incomings are reduced through this reduction, however ‘undeserving’ they may be deemed to be.

There are also problems with the fact that families who foster will be hit by this because foster children are not counted in the household for benefit purposes. This is surely a fundamental error in our benefits system and may potentially put people off giving this vital lifeline to vulnerable children. This is an integral issue with the system that is massively underpublicised and should be addressed by opponents and supporters of the changes alike.

There is, too, the broadly publicised and emotionally raw issue of the mother whose two sons are fighting for their country in Afghanistan and who will see her income suffer for keeping their bedrooms for when they return from active service. This is another legitimate area of concern in a bill which, whilst fundamentally necessary and fair, is flawed in certain areas.

Finally, there is the serious issue of a shortage of affordable and flexible housing and this, above all others, should be the main talking point to come out of this debate.

Instead of addressing these particular issues, however, the Opposition have branded it a ‘Tory tax on the poor’ and this is the line dominating the narrative surrounding it. It sets both sides in position in a toxic debate of which there can come no constructive good. Supporters of the bill argue that they’re curbing benefits for the undeserving, cleaning up Labour’s economic mess and attacking shirkers with a culture of entitlement. Opponents attack the immorality of the Conservative Party and wheel out hyperbolic arguments about Coalition hatred for the poor. Neither standpoint is constructive. Neither will solve the inherent issues.

Constructive opposition and effective scrutiny from opposing and Government benches is an integral part of a functioning democracy. Unfortunately, the way the Labour Party have gone about attacking this section of the Act is entirely the opposite. Labour MPs are tweeting with glee about door-knocking and raising the issue of the ‘Bedroom Tax’ with constituents. Frightening the public with a false narrative to score political points is something which all three parties have done in the past, some more than others. It is also entirely despicable and the Labour Party should be ashamed of themselves on this.

Labour has a strong and laudable tradition for standing up for the lower-paid, the public sector and those who need help. It is a tradition of which they should be justly proud having established things like the NHS and the Minimum Wage. What they are doing in the way they are approaching this issue, however, betrays that tradition and what they are supposed to stand for. Hyperbole does not hold anyone to account. It does not force ministers to justify their Bill or debate the finer points of it. It will not lead to changes or understanding but to fear and points scoring. It devalues the principles of the party and the democratic point of opposition. The way that Labour are approaching only proves this- that they have no credible alternatives, that they do not focus on addressing the issues that really matter and they cannot form a credible government should they be called upon to do so.

There are issues with welfare reform and these issues need to be addressed but labelling it a tax and ignoring the facts damages the cause of those who are legitimately concerned.