Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 20th November 2013.

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Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour

I am never keen to give up time to the member, but I am glad that we are in agreement.

I welcome that point because it is important. However, I acknowledge that some people are concerned that even those protections might be challenged in the courts. I therefore very much welcome the arrangement between the Scottish and UK Governments to amend the UK Equality Act 2010. The 2010 act contains provisions about not discriminating when providing a service, with exemptions for religious and belief bodies that apply in certain circumstances. The Scottish Government has rightly sought the protection to be more comprehensive by asking for a further amendment that would help to allay fears about challenges being brought on grounds of discrimination. It is helpful that an agreement has been reached with the UK Government on that point.

Concerns have also been expressed about whether it would affect someone’s employment if they held views that were opposed to same-sex marriage. The example most often cited is that teachers would be somehow forced out of their job if they refused to teach about same-sex marriage because they were fundamentally opposed to it. I think that we all acknowledge that teachers deal with difficult situations every day in schools. In the main, they do so sensitively—they balance their beliefs with the needs of the child or children before them. It would be wrong to put something in the bill when education circulars and guidance have served us extremely well in the past.

Existing legislative provision allows parents to withdraw their children from religious education. Existing guidance allows parents to withdraw their children from sexual health education. I welcome the Scottish Government’s proposal to update that guidance to reflect the introduction of same-sex marriage. Faith aspects of the curriculum in Catholic schools will continue to be a matter for the Scottish Catholic Education Service. However, it is important for the Scottish Government to review any suggested impact on education, to make doubly sure of the position. Like many other members, I have received thoughtful letters from teachers who support the proposal and teachers who are concerned about how to deal with same-sex marriage, so updated guidance will undoubtedly be helpful.

I have no doubt that amendments will be lodged with the aim of respecting the right of those who, as a result of their religious beliefs, take the traditional view of marriage as being between a man and a woman. Concerns have also been highlighted about freedom of speech. I note that the Lord Advocate has published guidance on the matter, which refers to provisions in the European Convention on Human Rights and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union on the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, along with freedom of expression. However, concerns remain. It is right for the Parliament to explore the subject again and ensure that the arrangements are robust.

The committee has also asked the Scottish Government to look again at the gender recognition provisions in the bill and at policy areas such as gender-neutral language and spousal consent for gender recognition. I have not had time to explore in detail all the issues that the committee raised but, Presiding Officer, you will have the fortune—or misfortune, depending on your view—to hear from me again in the closing speeches.

I hope that members will support the bill’s general principles at decision time. We and the Scottish Government have work to do to improve the bill and make it more robust. We must have adequate protections that genuinely address people’s concerns, but it is time for change. It is time to support equal marriage.