Autumn conference: Equality and diversity

This post is rather belated due to work, holidays, Lib Dem meetings, council meetings and my new toy – but I’ve finally found time to sit down and write about Autumn conference in Liverpool, and type up my brief intervention (1 minute speech).

It was great to be back in the city where I lived for four years, although a lot had changed. I got lost in the big new shopping centre in the city centre, and generally things are looking smarter, but I went for a drink in the Lisbon with a few friends and it was good to see that some places are still the same.

Anyway, back to conference. Apart from the airport-style security and presence of lots of big name journalists – I spotted Huw Edwards being photographed with a couple of kids – the conference was much the same as in the past. Liverpool was my fourth autumn conference, and the atmosphere was just the same as it had been in Brighton and Bournemouth. Stalls from all the Lib Dem groups, fringe meetings with big queues for the sandwiches (no one does queuing quite like Liberal Democrats), speeches and debates.

So, the debates. For those who aren’t aware, Lib Dem policy is made at conference. Not decided by the leadership, but democratically debated and voted on. That means that real members get to debate with the MPs, Lords and anyone who wants to have their say generally gets their chance.

This seemed to take the media slightly by surprise. “Splits” they cried, “Activists arguing amongst themselves”. Yes – that’s what we always do. It’s all about having an open discussion, and in the end taking a vote on it. Relatively few policies go through unamended, and sometimes they are thrown out altogether.

I attended three major debates this year. The education debate, held bizarrely when all the teachers were back at school, was a shot across the bows about academies. I voted for the compromise amendment, but the original motion was passed in the end, with an amendment about faith schools proposed by my local colleague Nader Fekri.

The other two debates were related: Equality (Equal Marriage in the United Kingdom) and diversity. The equality motion, which was passed overwhelmingly, calls for the extension of Civil Partnerships to straight couples and Marriage to gay couples – we thus become the first UK political party to call for full gay equality, which is great news.

The diversity motion was more complicated. It aimed to increase the proportion of black and minority ethnic Lib Dem parliamentarians and councillors, which is an important issue. However, it didn’t consider other minorities. An amendment from Jo Swinson et al added in women, but it still didn’t seem complete to me. My intervention (one minute speech) was as follows.

Conference, let’s not forget that black and minority ethnic is not the only under-represented group in the various parliaments.

I welcome amendment one which will help address the lamentably small number of women Lib Dem MPs, but what about LGBT candidates, disabled candidates and other groups.

I would suggest that if we’re going to have reserved places, they should not be for a specific minority, but could be for any under-represented group. Anyone could apply for one of these places, but they would have to be from a minority group, which I think would be fairer and avoid excluding potentially excellent candidates from the “wrong” minority.

Getting this right is so important, so let’s make sure we have a really diverse set of candidates, particularly for the Lords elections when (not if) the coalition government introduces an elected House of Lords under a proportional system.

It clocked in at 55 seconds so I didn’t have the embarrassment of having the mike turned off! The speech says it all really – I agreed with the sentiments of the motion, but it seemed poorly drafted and rather one sided. In the end, a complicated series of votes saw the compromise amendment going through which watered down the original motion. However, everyone is now aware that the issue needs urgently addressing, and I was pleased to read Tim Farron including it as one of his six commitments if he wins the party presidency. I suspect he will win, and I look forward to seeing what he comes up with.

Labour letting down our teenagers on sex education

This week’s shocking U-turn by the Labour Government, to allow religious schools to put their own slant on sex and relationship education, will let down thousands of teenagers (and younger children) across the country. Ed Balls’ amendment to the Children, Schools and Families Bill will almost certainly lead to state-funded religious schools teaching that contraception is immoral and that having a gay relationship is wrong.

At the Liberal Democrats Spring Conference last year, I summated the Calderdale motion on faith schools. I made the point that someone growing up lgbt in a religious school will have a much harder time when teachers are allowed to say that a relationship with someone of the same sex is wrong. Also, some religions are against contraception. With 21st Century Britain having such a high teenage pregnancy rate, and many developing countries struggling with overpopulation, I believe that such a position is indefensible.

Speaking on the amendment was an interesting experience as I had to persuade a couple of thousand Liberal Democrats to vote against Vince Cable, who had spoken against our amendment. The end result was – as it so often is – a compromise. The resulting Liberal Democrat policy is that faith schools can continue to exist, but must demonstrate the diversity of their intake, ie. not just fill up with children of one religion. I believe very strongly that growing up with people who are of different religions, races, and sexualities, is essential to overcome prejudice, which is caused by the fear of the unknown.

The Accord Coalition, made up of people from many religions and none, has strongly criticised Ed Balls’ amendment, drawing parallels with the infamous Section 28. It is shocking that a Labour Government, who scrapped Section 28 and introduced civil partnerships, is taking such a backward step on lgbt issues. Equally worrying is the fact that youngsters across the country may not be properly taught about contraception, potentially leading to STDs and hundreds of unwanted pregnancies. Whilst I respect the right of any religion to have its own views, children in state-funded schools need to be taught the basic facts of life in an unbiased way.

It is clear that the once-radical Labour Party have given up any hope of improving things for lgbt youngsters. The Tories have always been hopeless, so it is now left to the Liberal Democrats – with our promise of full marriage between any two consenting adults regardless of gender, and our sensible policies on faith schools – to carry the lgbt flame.