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Barbara Roche speech

July 4 2002 Full text of the speech made by Barbara Roche, Minister for Women and Equality to the TUC's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Conference, Thursday 4th July 2002.

First of all, let me say, as the Minister responsible for Equalities, how delighted I am to be speaking at this conference, now in its fifth year.

I would also like to thank the TUC for organising this event which simply would not have happened ten or 15 years ago. There has clearly been a change in attitudes since the days when many - if not most - lesbian and gay employees felt they had to keep their private lives secret, although I recognise that we still have a long way to go.

Having said that, I also think it is important to stress that we have come a long way, especially in the last decade. Some of the changes have undoubtedly come about as a result of the campaigns that trade unions and the TUC have waged, and I recognise the contribution you have made in driving forward the debate

For instance, the Government recently allowed a free vote on an amendment to the Adoption and Children Bill that would allow unmarried couples - including same sex couples - to jointly adopt.

And as recently as last month, the Government announced plans to publish proposals for legislation on sex offences as soon as parliamentary time allows.

I believe that when this is debated in Parliament, attitudes in the House will be very different this time round compared to the views expressed during the Sexual Offences Act in 1967. Then, MPs referred to homosexuality as 'an abnormality', a 'dire handicap', a 'great sin'. One MP recommended that parliament think about how to 'reduce the number of faulty males in the community.' It's hard to believe now that these were MPs speaking in favour of the bill.

Unfortunately, I can't claim that repealing all legislation is uncontroversial. I don't need to remind you that there was fierce opposition when we tried to repeal Section 28. I know that this legislation offends gay men and lesbians, as indeed it offends me, not least because it stigmatises a section of the population for no reason other than their sexual orientation. However, let me reassure you that the Government is considering carefully how to proceed on this.

I am also aware of the continuing problems faced by transgender people who want full equality under the law. These issues were examined in a Working Group report presented to Parliament in 2000. The working Group is now being reconvened to report progress to Ministers later this year on the remaining obstacles to granting full legal recognition to people in their acquired gender.

One issue that has been the subject of much debate and discussion among the lesbian and gay movement is Civil Partnership Registration.

I was intrigued to read a description of myself in the Pink Paper, as the 'very short (think Kylie with more padding) pocket sized politician who has been handed' this issue. Although the paper advises its readers not to buy a hat as yet, I can tell you that that we have made real progress.

In November, I announced that the Government would be looking at the issue of civil partnership registration with its associated rights and responsibilities. This work is now being undertaken by a dedicated team of officials at the Women and Equality Unit.

But it's important to say that registration raises a number of complex issues for Government, not least in terms of the financial and administrative implications. And as I am sure you will understand, we cannot commit ourselves to making changes before we have completed our analysis.

Of course, there are some areas where the recognition of same sex partners has already occurred. For instance, following the appalling bombing in Soho, the criminal injuries compensation scheme was changed to allow a same sex partner to claim compensation in fatal cases. As a local MP, I was only too aware of the awful consequences for the people caught up in the bombing - two of my constituents suffered terrible injuries.

As some of you here may be aware, the Government recently carried out a survey of people from LGB organisations to help inform our work on civil partnership, so thanks to those Unison members who responded.

The Cabinet Office sent out 3,000 questionnaires in total - 1,000 each to UNISON, the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement and Stonewall - to help us build up a picture of lesbian and gay relationships.

Overall we had a 48% response rate - very high indeed - which clearly reflects the strength of feeling out there about this subject.

This shows how seriously we are taking the work on civil partnerships. It has given us information about same sex relationships that will help us understand better the implications of civil partnership for Government.

And I am happy to say that today is the first time that the findings are being made publicly available - and you are the first audience to hear them.

Overall there was almost total support for partnership registration - 98%.

What came across very strongly is that lesbians and gay men are no different from and just as diverse as the public as a whole. Very often assumptions are made about the instability of gay and lesbian relationships. Those assumptions are not borne out by this survey, which found that the average length of cohabitations was ten years.

65% of the respondents are in cohabiting relationships (compared to 62% of the general population); 86% would consider registering a relationship; and 83% of those in a relationship said they would register their current relationship

But more immediately, I recognise that we need to continue to tackle discrimination against the LGB community more widely, so we will be implementing the European Employment Directive to outlaw discrimination (both direct and indirect) in the workplace on the ground of sexual orientation by the end of 2003.

The UK government played a very active and significant role in the negotiations to implement the directive- and I am grateful for the support of the TUC, Stonewall, EOC and other partners in that process.

Clearly, implementation of the directive is badly needed - as figures from the TUC suggest. One report showed that 44% of employees have suffered harassment on the grounds of their sexual orientation.

Some of the stories are truly shocking - one gay man ended up trying to commit suicide after a noose and a ransom note were left on his desk at work. The final straw came when his colleagues found out where he lived, and damaged his house. The man was never able to return to work.

But not all discrimination is so blatant, although it can be just as damaging. Some lesbian and gay employees find themselves socially ostracised, others are barred from promotion or put under extra pressure at work.

That is why we must ensure the directive has a real impact on the ground. And that means implementing it in a way that fully engages business.

So our first priority has to be getting the legislation on employment and training right, and ensuring that the rights and obligations under the directive are understood and widely supported.

We shall, of course, monitor the impact of the new legislation. This is not the end of the road in terms of the Government's commitment towards creating a fair and just society.

I have looked at your resolutions for this conference with interest. I note your concerns about a potential loophole in the employment directive in terms of religious organisations.

I want to talk about this important point. Our legislation allows religious organisations to recruit staff on the basis of their religion or belief where that is necessary to preserve the organisation's ethos. However, this does not allow religion or belief organisations to discriminate on other grounds. That means - and this is important - it will not allow a religious organisation to justify dismissal of an employee simply because of his or her sexual orientation.

As you are probably aware, the directive will also have an impact on pensions, although whether employers have to pay out benefits from pension schemes to same sex partners will depend on the rules of the scheme.

Where the rules say that benefits should be paid to married and unmarried heterosexual partners, it would be directly discriminatory to deny those rights to same sex partners.

I am pleased to say that some employers have already recognised the value of the diversity agenda. Last month, the Cabinet Office and Barclays Bank launched a report listing more than a hundred of the UK's leading organisations which recognise the importance of diversity to their overall business success.

The Cabinet Office has also joined Stonewall's Diversity Champions scheme - which the Government as a whole has endorsed - which encourages employers to recognise the needs of lesbian and gay staff.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office now offers the same overseas allowances to married and unmarried officers including same sex couples, and have launched a campaign 'Know Before You Go', which gives information to British LGBT travellers going abroad.

I would endorse the comments of the FCO official recently quoted in the Pink Paper who said: 'We represent the UK as a society. If we are not going to do this inclusively, it isn't worth the candle. This is not a bleeding heart, move-with-the-times kind of thing.'

BP, the biggest employer in Britain and one of the largest in the world, announced last month that it is targeting gays and lesbians for recruitment to ensure that it attracts the most able people in a very competitive market.

Essex police is actively recruiting gay, lesbian and bisexual and transgendered officers. And, just this year, the Home Office agreed funding for the first time for the Lesbian and Gay Police Association.

I'm sorry I can't stay to listen to the debates because of other commitments, but my officials will be here for the rest of the conference and I look forward to hearing the results of your discussions.

I hope that we will continue to work together on various issues, and I'm confident from our experience during the Article 13 negotiations that the TUC will continue to play an important role on a number of different fronts.

I look forward to working with you in the future.

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