Lord Black spoke in the House of Lords in support of the Merchant Shipping (Homosexual Conduct) Bill.
The Bill, if passed, would repeal aspects of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 which suggest it would be lawful to dismiss a seafarer for a "homosexual act". That law is in fact of no effect, as such a dismissal would fall foul of equality legislation. However, the Bill is of huge symbolic value "[as it] it will carry forward a vital message beyond our shores and act as a continuing beacon of hope for LGBT+ people around the world who live in countries that continue to criminalise them and to discriminate against them."
Lord Black said:
My Lords, this is the second time in recent weeks that we have had the opportunity to consider an extremely short Bill, the significance of which is out of all proportion to its length. Unlike the other one, this is a Bill I can wholeheartedly support.
I congratulate my noble friend Lady Scott on shepherding the Bill through this House and thank my good friend John Glen for introducing this important measure in the first place. My noble friend Lord Lexden, who is a stalwart champion in this House of LGBT+ rights, had hoped to be here to support it, but is detained elsewhere. He has asked me to say how strongly he backs this measure.
Although we are dealing here with the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, this legislation, as the learned noble Lord, Lord Lester, said, is intimately connected with the Sexual Offences Act 1967. Many LGBT+ people are this year commemorating the passage of that landmark legislation exactly 50 years ago. There can be no better way to mark it than to remove from the statute book what undoubtedly is the very last statutory provision penalising homosexuality. Although the statute book will now be clear, as the noble Lord said, its application across the United Kingdom is not yet complete. We have to remember that gay men and women cannot marry in Northern Ireland. It has been a long journey from Wolfenden, at a time when gay men were criminalised, second-class, often outcast citizens, to the complete removal in law of any form of discrimination. That makes this Bill something of a red-letter day for all those who have campaigned tirelessly for justice and equality for LBGT people and against intolerance.
There is a lot to commend this short Bill. As my noble friend said, it tidies up legislation, which is always a good thing. We should spend more time in this way getting rid of outdated laws that have not kept pace with social change, rather than putting new ones on to the statute book. The Bill will remove any remaining ambiguity in the law. Even though, as we have heard, the provisions of the 1994 Act have no legal force, their policy implications are ambiguous and it is right to get rid of them. It might not affect a great number of individuals, but this measure removes any perception of a threat of legalised persecution, particularly for LGBT seafarers. But above all it is of totemic importance. By repealing an odious law that should never have defaced the statute book, it sends out a powerful signal to all individuals, regardless of their sexual orientation, that this House is committed to justice and equality, to tackling prejudice and intolerance, and to bringing an end to any form of discrimination.
Even more importantly, and this is the central point I want to make, I believe it will carry forward a vital message beyond our shores and act as a continuing beacon of hope for LGBT+ people around the world who live in countries that continue to criminalise them and to discriminate against them, often in the most barbaric and degrading ways—a human tragedy that this House has often effectively addressed. Those people, many of whom are fighting for justice in their own countries, rightly see this Parliament as a staunch defender of their rights—indeed, there is no more stalwart champion of that cause than the noble Lord, Lord Lester. They look to us for continuing inspiration in their struggles. After all, it was the UK that bequeathed the horror of criminalisation to much of the Commonwealth, along with a number of other odious laws such as criminal defamation. The significance of this Parliament continuing to root out discriminatory legislation and get rid of it cannot be overstated. That is why the impact of this tiny piece of legislation goes well beyond the issue of sexual relations between sailors.
In one of the debates we had about Turing and the whole issue of posthumous pardons, I mentioned that I had recently reread EM Forster’s great novel Maurice, which centres largely on the issues of historical importance raised by the Bill. Forster’s characters, one of whom was imprisoned for an act of so-called gross indecency, lived in the shadow of that terrible injustice. All those, including merchant seamen, who were sentenced to imprisonment with hard labour around the time that novel was written died with the shame of a criminal record, which is why Forster said on the front page of that masterpiece, “This book is dedicated to happier times”. For people such as him and those ordinary people he wrote about, on land and on the high seas, happier times never arrived. However, they are here now and the Bill allows us to complete a long, tough and most noble journey.
Hansard source here.