UK: Discrimination bill snubs gays to save Muslim vote

The Sunday Times
Gay rights campaigners have been snubbed by the government for fear of upsetting Muslim voters who are regarded as more important to Labour’s election campaign.
This week a new bill giving Muslims protection against religious discrimination will be published, but there will be no equivalent right for gays, as had been planned by ministers.
Downing Street fears that Muslims, whose votes could be the key to saving the seats of many Labour MPs, might feel offended if they were “lumped together” with homosexuals.

The change comes despite the fact that there are thought to be around 3m gay voters, compared with 1.3m Muslims of voting age in Britain.

Under the bill, it will become illegal for the provider of any goods or services — such as a hotel, shop, pub or restaurant — to refuse to serve someone on the grounds of their religion. It is already illegal to do so on the basis of race or gender.

It had been expected that the bill would include protection against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. Ministers planned to introduce such a safeguard after a gay couple from London were refused a double room at a bed and breakfast in Scotland because the owner said their relationship was “unnatural”.

The move is likely to anger homosexual rights campaigners who will argue that the change of policy could put the government in conflict with Brussels. Under EU directives, ministers are required to introduce laws against all forms of discrimination, including on the grounds of sexual orientation.

But the equality bill, which will be released this week, merely sets up a new umbrella body — the Equality and Human Rights Commission — to police all discrimination.

In theory, protecting homosexuals fro m unfair treatment will be within the commission’s remit. However, the law will not spell out specific gay rights to be protected.

Patricia Hewitt, the trade and industry secretary, will try to allay campaigners’ fears when she makes a speech on Tuesday to Stonewall, the gay rights group.

In favouring Muslim voters at the risk of upsetting gays, Labour is following in the footsteps of Ken Livingstone, the mayor of London.

Livingstone has assiduously courted the Muslim vote, even at the expense of goodwill among the gay community. He invited the Muslim cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi to London despite the sheikh’s views. Al-Qaradawi condemns homosexuality, advocates wife-beating and describes suicide bombers as “martyrs”.

The decision to drop homosexual rights from the bill was taken by Downing Street.

by David Cracknell, Political Editor and originally published on February 27, 2005 in The Sunday Times