Next week, the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill will head back to the House of Commons after amendments were made in the House of Lords, in what is known as ‘ping pong’ – the final stage before a Bill becomes the law.
This Bill’s purpose is to make sure that, once we wake up on the morning Brexit is complete, we still have all the same laws and rules that we were governed by as members of the European Union (as far as possible).
In principle, this should mean that the LGBT rights we enjoy as part of our membership of the European Union should not change. However, I was really concerned to find that the Bill did not include any guarantee that our rights would be protected.
This included provisions in the Bill that would allow Ministers to make changes to the EU law that the UK keeps without the usual parliamentary process and scrutiny by MPs and peers. It also removed equalities legislation, such as the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.
Without any changes, the Bill would also have ended the right to bring action in UK courts under the general principles of EU law. Supported by the human rights charity, Liberty, it was these general principles that John Walker used in his 11 year legal battle to end inequalities in private pension rights for same-sex couples, making sure that his husband would be entitled to a spouse’s pension in the same way that a wife would be.
While the Government promised that our rights will not be touched after Brexit, it was not enough. We needed a cast-iron guarantee, in law, that once we leave the European Union none of us will have fewer rights.
That’s why, in the House of Lords, we made a truly cross-party effort to improve the Bill. Peers of all political persuasions passionately debated and voted to keep important equalities protections. This sends a clear signal to the Government that withdrawal from the European Union must not put our rights at risk.
But despite their support, the amendments we made could still be voted down when the Bill returns to the House of Commons. That’s why I’m urging MPs to keep the changes and maintain Britain’s position as one of the world’s leaders in LGBT equality.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the enactment of Section 28, a deeply harmful piece of legislation that stopped schools and local authorities from talking about same-sex relationships, effectively blocking support for pupils who may have been questioning their sexuality. It is vital we don’t find ourselves slipping backwards.
The LGBT community and our allies fought hard for the rights we enjoy today. The Government must ensure that, throughout the process of withdrawing from the European Union, their work is not undone.
Lord Cashman is a Labour peer, and former MEP and actor