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We asked Equalities Minister Baroness Williams about LGBTQ-inclusive education and the deportation of gay asylum seekers

As a new prime minister takes office, what will become of some of the most pressing LGBTQ issues of the day?

2019-08-01

Interview: Cliff Joannou / Words: Will Stroude

Boris Johnson is in Number 10. The UK is due to leave the EU on 31 October. And in an increasingly divided and uncertain world, questions about how society treats those who are those who are different are once again coming to the fore.

Half a decade after marriage equality was first introduced in England and Wales, the angry backlash to schools finally acknowledging the existence of LGBTQ people in the classroom has demonstrated that the battle for hearts and minds is far from over.

The British government, meanwhile, is happy to voice its support for the LGBTQ community and adorn its social media platforms with rainbow logos during Pride month while continuing to deport queer people escaping persecution to some of the most homophopbic nations on Earth.

It's sometimes easy to assume such issues will improve 'naturally' in time as understanding of LGBTQ people grows. That, sadly, is not true.

According to The Independent, data published last November showed that 78 per cent of asylum claims referring to sexual orientation were refused by the Home Office in 2017-18 - an increase of 52 per cent increase on 2015, when 61 per cent of sexual orientation claims were rejected.

And with LGBT-inclusive relationships education for primary school children in England and Wales being added to the curriculum from September 2020 (and optionally from next month), it remains to be seen how - or indeed whether - the government will ensure that all children are taught that they are valued and accepted, regardless of the school they attend.

With all this in mind, we spoke to the Minister of State for Equalities, Baroness Williams, about the most pressing LGBTQ issues of the day - and how our governement plans to deal with them...

Photo credit: Mike Kear

 

What reassurances do minorities have that their rights will be protected after Brexit?

It's one of the things that we talked about, when we were talking about the Domestic Abuse Bill that the leadership candidates would follow through with some of the reforms that the Prime Minister Theresa May had made. That was one area, and equality, I think... overall,  is something that is very, very important to be protected.

With regard to equalities, what would be your message to Boris Johnson?

I would say that equality is good for society, for the economy and for the well-being of everyone. So it's not a simple matter of equality. It has all sorts of benefits to wider society, including economic benefit.

The LGBT Action Plan published earlier this month states how workshops to tackle bullying have reached 1800 schools. That still leaves over 30,000 schools that have not had these workshops. Should they be mandatory and ongoing for all schools?

If you look at for how long the Action Plan has been in place for and how many of the aspects of it that we've already tackled, I don't think it's a bad first start. We seem to be taking schools with us, so I think it's really important that we don't have to mandate, that schools actually want to do it.

But what about the schools that don't want to do it? Because they're essentially the ones where it’s needed most.

Well, relationships education, obviously, in both primary schools and secondary schools is mandatory, and I think some of the ways that we're teaching, or the schools are teaching tolerance, inclusivity, acceptance of all different types of family norms now in society, is the right way forward.

 

But in regards to the bullying workshops, is this a short term commitment for two or three years, or will there be continued funds available for them in future, because obviously there are new students coming into schools with every new school year.

You're absolutely right, and as Equalities Minister, I'm really keen to see the good work carry on. So we have a spending review coming up, which is why some of the commitments are for one year, because we're coming towards the end of the spending review, and it is my intention, for the next spending review, to push for more money in all sorts of aspects of what we're doing through the LGBT Action Plan, like with LGBT Health Advisor Dr. Michael Brady, like the advisory group, like the bullying programs that we've talked about. So, it doesn't end [because a] new Prime Minister comes in. That would be an absolute crying shame.

You mentioned relationship education in primary schools. How does the government plan to resolve the current conflicts seen at schools in Birmingham between parents and the schools when it becomes mandatory in September 2020?

Well, I think you'll have heard the words of the former Education Secretary, who was quite robust in saying that children should be taught about different types of relationships, about tolerance of different types of relationships and families. And so that is going to happen in September [2020].

What happens if parents are pulling children out of classes, and out of school?

I think what makes a good school-parent relationship is if there is good communication between the school, the head teacher and the parents, so that you don't have that conflict situation.

Are there any lessons to be learnt from Parkfield School, that the government has observed and will be taking onboard?

I pay tribute to those teachers, I have to say that first and foremost, I think the lesson that we've learnt is that sometimes, you can't tell quite what the reaction of certain things when you bring them forward, but good communication and engagement between parents and the school is absolutely key so that there aren't mixed or crossed wires.

This is the quote from the guidelines in reference to relationship education and faith: "All schools may teach about faith perspectives. In particular schools with religious character may teach the distinctive faith perspective on relationships, and balanced debate may take place about issues that are seen as contentious." What's to stop a school with quite traditional views on homosexuality or gender identity saying, ‘The law says this, but actually it's a sin and you're going to hell.’ It’s not a healthy thing for young LGBTQ children to hear.

There isn't a contradiction because there isn't a contradiction between the law and respecting different faiths, because the Equality Act comes into play. So that is where... that's the check and balance.

But still, young people are being told that the way they identify and the way they're born is wrong according to the choices that are foisted upon them through religion.

Not only is debate fine, debate is a great thing. We all need to discuss how we're feeling and some of the things we might have inside, but to undermine someone's protected characteristic, for example sexuality, that goes against the Equality Act. So teachers have got a balance to strike, but they should also allow for free debate within schools.

But sexual identity should not up for debate.

No, no, no. I'm saying people should be allowed to speak about it, should be able to go to teachers about it without fear of being undermined or told what they're feeling is wrong. There's a balance to be struck in terms of, perhaps, religious views, but also, we are Britain and tolerance and acceptance is very important to us.

And if a school is found to be not portraying different gender or sexual identity in the best light, how would that be dealt with?

Schools are very closely regulated, bodies like Ofsted inspect schools. Although schools are in many senses autonomous from local authorities now, they do have quite a strict inspection regime, and I would expect that that, or indeed feedback from parents or indeed teachers, to be key in that kind of monitoring.

What's the delay in making conversion therapy illegal?

So, we've said we want to end it. People have said, "Oh do you want to ban it?" We've said, "No, we want to end it". Banning it means it still exists, ending means it does not exist anymore. It's far more complex than we first thought it might be. It comes from different sources. It can be cultural, it can be faith-based, it can be health-based, it can be based on the fact that perhaps practitioners aren't appropriately trained. So we are absolutely committed to end it.

Do you have a timeline?

Certainly we've set out our action plan, and it's to deliver our commitments within this Parliament, and so I'm going to expect that if you interview me by the end of this Parliament we would be well underway with looking at both the legislative and the non-legislative, because it isn't purely a legal route to ending it. It's non-legislative intervention as well, that I think is going to be needed. So you can test me on that in two and a half years time.

Is it appropriate for the Home Office to be flying the rainbow flag during Pride when it's in the process of deporting LGBTQ people to countries where they have to hide their identity and live in fear of prosecution?

We would not deport someone to a place that would persecute them. We would not do that. We would never return someone to a place where they would face persecution. I'm based in the Home Office as the Equalities Minister, and the Home Office is absolutely committed to LGBT equality and equality in every sense of the word.

But there are cases like Kenneth Macharia, who was taken to a detention centre and had it not been for his colleagues stepping in to stop his deportation, would have been sent back to Kenya, a country in which he would have to hide his identity. So it is happening.

I'm not going to talk about individual cases, you'll understand that, because some of them will be in the process of being considered, but I would just make that point that we would not send someone back to a place where they would face persecution.

And what would you classify as persecution?

Any sort of abuse or the force of the law that came down on them because they were LGBT.

And what is the government doing to protect LGBTQ asylum seekers who face hostile environments in British detention centres, especially trans people, for example?

We've done a lot of work with Stonewall and UKLGIG to develop training for our people who work in detention centre. I guess there are situations where someone might face abuse in a detention centre, particularly because of where they came from, if they were LGBT. Safeguarding for people who are in any way vulnerable, and there are so many people, who may in some way or other be vulnerable, in detention, that need that safeguarding assessment. Everyone's assessed when they go into a detention centre, [and] it may not be actually immediately apparent that someone is LGBT when they go into a detention centre. Quite often people will then seek asylum in the detention centre saying that they are LGBT. Some things are not immediately obvious before someone goes in, but then become apparent when they do.

Parliament recently voted in favour of introducing same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland if a power sharing agreement is not agreed in the coming months. But why is gay marriage in Northern Ireland considered a devolved matter, when it's fundamentally an issue of equality?

That's what will have been set out in the Good Friday Agreement, I'm guessing, what are the devolved functions and that is the way it's been. But I do, and hope everyone in this government hopes, that that will be resolved.

What are the issues around updating and implementing the Gender Recognition Act?

I can't stress how important it is that we get this right. We need to carefully plan our response and any next steps so they get the right backing and are able to have a positive impact on the lives of trans people.