Eloping from Gretna?

BCN 122 cover

This originally appeared in BCN issue 122, December 2013

For a while it looked like Scotland would introduce same-sex marriage before England and Wales.  We’d see queer couples flocking across the border to Gretna Green to marry.  As things worked out Westminster voted back in the summer, while the first vote in the Holyrood Parliament didn’t come until November 20th.

This isn’t where it all started though.  In June, the Scottish Parliament’s Equal Opportunities Committee invited written evidence, and received around 1300 submissions from individuals and groups. BCN was amongst those putting our opinions forward, based in part on the readers poll we ran a while ago, and we were the only bi-specific organisation to put in evidence.

In September and October, the Committee invited a selection of LGBT organisations, religious groups, lawyers and others to give evidence in person.

Only after that process did we get to the first reading bill in November.

Around a quarter of all MSPs spoke during a well-mannered debate lasting about three hours. At BCN we live-tweeted through the debate giving some flavour of the discussions for those not able to watch the whole thing, though the Scottish Parliament’s streaming video servers kept falling over in response to perhaps the greatest level of demand they’d yet faced.

There was support from all five parties in the Parliament.  Third to speak was Ruth Davidson, Conservative leader, who gave a powerful account of why marriage mattered to her as a lesbian.  Green leader Patrick Harvie also made it personal:
“my personal circumstances place me in what I regard as impeccably neutral territory on the issue: I am single, I am bisexual, I have no idea whether I will have a long-term relationship with a man or a woman in future and I have no idea whether I would want to get married.”

We got a sly bi cultural reference when Labour MSP Elaine Murray quoted Tom Robinson’s “Glad To Be Gay”:
“I remind people who say that civil partnerships should be enough of the 1976 hit by the Tom Robinson Band “(Sing if You’re) Glad to be Gay”, which, despite its cheerful title, spoke of police harassment, beatings, and insults, and ended with—I will not say the word—the b’s
“are legal now; what more are they after?”
Well, like most people, they want equality.”

The debate concluded at a civilised 8pm or so, and after a short gap it went to a vote: 98 votes in favour to 15 against, with five active abstentions and a handful of MSPs unable to attend.

At the time of writing the Bill is about to go into its committee stage, which it will probably complete in January, followed by a final vote in February.  Royal Assent might then be given in March 2014.

The Scottish Government then has to draft regulations to enable the provisions of the Act to be fully implemented. For instance, setting out the procedure for changing a civil partnership to a marriage. There may be a public consultation on the regulations, and then they must be approved by the Parliament. Typically the process of drafting, consulting, and approving regulations takes about 12 months: perhaps some of Westminster’s parallel work might be copyable?

Quite when the law then comes into effect remains to be seen – Westminster has passed same-sex marriage into law and announced the first weddings will be allowed at the end of March.  It might just be possible for Scotland to bring their marriage law into effect on the same date, but it’ll be a tight squeeze.

Still to fix? Mixed-sex civil partnership, left out of the marriage reforms north and south of the border. The Scottish Equal Marriage campaign has always been for the opening of both marriage and civil partnership to couples regardless of gender, as were BCN readers when we asked you. Both Westminster and the Scottish Government are to review this in the near future so further legislation may follow.

Still to fix? Pension equality – this issue is reserved to Westminster, so cannot be dealt with by the Scottish bill. The UK Government have promised to review the remaining discrimination against same-sex couples in private sector pension benefits. The review is due to finish by July 2014, so there might be legislation to end the discrimination in the second half of 2014.

Where does this leave Northern Ireland?  The Stormont Assembly has used its powers to block same-sex marriage there, but will recognise GB same-sex marriages as if they were civil partnerships.  Northern Ireland took 15 years to catch up with England and Wales after sex between men was decriminalised in 1967; at the moment the political balance in Stormont looks determined to repeat its record.