I wrote Friday evening on the rumours of a same-sex marriage announcement.  As became public a short time after my post, the rumours were confirmed.  Of sorts.  The eventual announcement came in Lynne Featherstone’s speech on Saturday at the Liberal Democrat Conference in Birmingham.  Featherstone is Equalities Minister, and one of the few ‘left’ Liberals in government.  Her speech can be read in full here, and as you’ll see, gay rights came in a short section at the end of her speech.  If you were to believe some of the media coverage (based on the preemptive leak, rather than the actual statement), you would think her announcement was to reveal that a new same-sex marriage bill would be imminently introduced, passed, and address current equality concerns.  In reality, it won’t be imminently introduced, it probably will be passed, but it won’t address current equality concerns.

At the end of her speech, Featherstone remarked:

‘And while on my travels as a Champion for Women’s Rights, I am and will be a Champion for Gay Rights too.
 

I will be raising the issue with Governments all over the world and will continue to push everyone, from allies to adversaries, to recognise what we know is true: 

That Gay Rights are Human Rights. No excuses, no exceptions, no compromises. 

But, conference, as with the treatment of women, Britain must not get complacent. 

We are a world leader for gay rights, but as this conference made clear last year with your call for equal marriage, there is still more that we must do. 

That is why I am delighted to announce today that in March, this Government will begin a formal consultation on how to implement equal civil marriage for same sex couples. 

And this would allow us to make any legislative changes necessary by the end of this Parliament. 

Civil partnerships were a welcome first step – but as our constitution states, this party rejects prejudice and discrimination in all its forms. 

And I believe that to deny one group of people the same opportunities offered to another is not only discrimination, but is not fair.’

Curiously, the announcement fell rather flat among the blogging and tweeting liberal types (i.e. folks like me) who far from praising the move, were critical of the move.

The first wave of criticism is focused upon the lack of action – that this is a consultation rather than a an announcement of legislation.  I have some sympathy with this view but the coalition has been rather useless when it comes to rushing through ill-thought through legislation (e.g NHS reforms and privatised forests – remember that?) so taking time to get this right, is a welcome shift.  That said, the Government could have announced a Green Paper this Autumn with a White Paper next Spring and legislation introduced in Autumn 2012.  That would at least give the feel of this moving forward.

However, the second criticism – that this is merely about creating same-sex marriage and NOT extending civil partnerships to different-sex couples, suggests the government has pretty firm ideas about what will and won’t be involved.  In other words, they must be at the White Paper stage now in their thinking.  They know broadly speaking what the options are, and what they’ve ruled out.  They could therefore get on with this now rather than wait.

However, I think the timetable for their reform – a ‘consultation’ (no reference to whether a Green or White paper)  next Spring provides an opportunity for lobbyists to pressure the government into a re-think.  This is an opportunity to take a serious look at civil partnerships, same-sex marriage and relationship recognition in a holisitc way.  The Liberal Democrats should be driving this issue and not merely accepting what David Cameron – the Conservative Party leader and PM – has said he would do anyway – presumably regardless of whether the Liberal Democrats were in coalition or not.

A third level of criticism was that this was something already known.  Indeed, Stonewall were quick to publish their response and a detailed response to a  consultation (which doesn’t according to Featherstone start until next Spring) and that response was dated July 2011, suggesting that something is amiss.  Either Stonewall possess remarkable powers, or an insider deal has already been cooked with select groups.

Peter Tatchell and the Equal Love Campaign are already challenging the move.  Tatchell tweeted after the announcement the following:

Curiously, the move to extend same-sex marriage but NOT civil partnerships would create a very clear position of inequality – potentially strengthening the human rights legal action.  Thi9s practical argument, more than ideological arguments may persuage minsiters to have a re-think of civil partnerships.  This could however, back-fire with the total abolotion of civil partnerships to avoid the entrenchment of legislative inequality.  This would force same-sex couples to become ‘married’ even for those who fidn the term undesireable.

Whatever happens next, this is an important step, but it could be an incredible opportunity.  It would be a mistake for Featherstone and her allies to think that it’s a case of ‘job done’ for if this really is about addressing equality, the work has a long way to go.

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