On Friday 21 October in Parliament, a Conservative junior minister successfully filibustered a private member’s bill that would have automatically pardoned not only those convicted of same-sex offences before the law changed and who are deceased, but also gay men currently alive who were convicted of same-sex offences. The government’s decision to defeat the bill was a poor advert for UK politics.
SNP MP John Nicholson’s bill would have finally brought an end to arguably the last legal injustice remaining in the UK against gay or bisexual people by wiping the slate clean for all those convicted of same-sex offences no longer applicable, whether deceased or not, estimated to be some 50,000 people. The ‘Turing Bill’ was named after the mathematician and scientist Alan Turing, who made a critical contribution to Britain’s Second World War effort by helping to crack the fabled German enigma code, but was subsequently convicted for his homosexuality and committed suicide post-war. The bill was thwarted, however, by a government junior minister’s filibustering.
Justice Minister Sam Gyimah spoke for 25 minutes to ensure the bill overran the strict time limits such private members’ bills have to adhere to. The wider context of his actions is that a day before, on Thursday 20th October, the government announced that they would amend the forthcoming Policing and Crime Bill to pardon posthumously those found guilty of the now defunct same-sex offences, but gay men convicted who are still in the land of the living would continue to have to go through the current ‘disregard’ process set up by the Home Office in 2012, under the Protection of Freedoms Act.
Although the government justified the delaying tactics employed due to concerns about Nicholson’s bill leading to exemptions for some offences that remain enforced, this seems hard to believe for two reasons.
Firstly, Nicholson himself asserts that he received assurances from Conservative whips of the government’s wholehearted support for his proposals earlier in the week. If correct, this is damning of the government either way if you take their ‘concerns’ of loopholes in the bill for sexual offences that still exist today, seriously or not. If not, it is a damning indictment of the government, inexplicably backsliding and ensuring gay men still alive who were convicted of same-sex offences now unenforced, continue to have to go through the unnecessary stress and rigmarole of filling out and fulfilling various forms and procedures involved in the current ‘disregard’ process.
However, if government concerns about the bill’s content enabling said loopholes are to be taken at face value, then secondly, it is simply beyond my comprehension why the government did not seek to amend Nicholson’s bill accordingly, whilst ensuring the automatic pardon also applied to gay men affected who are still alive.
I find myself reaching the uncomfortable conclusion that either the Conservative government remains too shackled by the most socially conservative elements within the party to risk pardoning all those convicted, or they have engaged in political games, seeking to steal from the SNP the credit for instituting the measure, the kind of juvenile political behaviour that has made so many people in the UK politically apathetic. Or even possibly a combination of both these explanations.
In fairness to Justice Minister Sam Gyimah, his filibustering was not the only disappointing aspect of the debate upon the bill – once again vast swathes of green benches were vacant. Although undoubtedly many MPs have unremitting schedules, surely it is precisely issues like this that should bring about far greater presence of MPs because of their significance. It also seemed insulting to those who had appeared and spoken passionately, like Labour MP for Rhondda, Chris Bryant.
Furthermore, had sufficient numbers of opposition MPs turned up, and it should be added that only the SNP appeared in significant numbers, a vote could have then been had to proceed, regardless of Gyimah’s stalling attempts. This means that as well as the Conservative government, the Labour Party also did not cover themselves in glory. All in all, Friday’s debate was one for Hansard, the official parliament records, to forget.