King’s Speech overlooks key humanist campaigns
Humanists UK has expressed dismay at the King’s Speech – which sets out the Government’s agenda for the months ahead – as it overlooks progress on key humanist campaigns to legally recognise humanist marriages, close down illegal schools, and ban conversion therapy.
No action to legally recognise humanist marriages in England and Wales
The Government has once again failed to address the pressing need to legally recognise humanist marriages in England and Wales in its King’s Speech.
The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 gave the Government the power to recognise humanist marriages by Order. But in the ten years of inaction that followed, it has instead subjected the matter to numerous reviews and consultations. The Government still has the power to grant legal recognition of humanist marriages in England and Wales by laying an Order and we urge it to do so.
The case for legal recognition is clear. In 2020, six humanist couples took a legal case on the basis of discrimination to the High Court. In her judgment, Mrs Justice Eady found that the lack of legal recognition is discriminatory. She said that the Secretary of State ‘cannot simply… sit on his hands’ and do nothing to resolve the matter. However, she said, given that the Government was currently giving the matter consideration in the form of a wholesale review into marriage law by the Law Commission – which it said was the desirable way forward, the Government’s refusal to act immediately could be justified ‘at this time’. Since then, however, the review and its outcome have continued to be delayed. In the meantime, the Government has carried out interim marriage reform while continuously overlooking humanist marriages. Humanist marriages have long since been legally recognised in Scotland (2005), Ireland (2012), Northern Ireland (2018), Jersey (2018), and Guernsey (2021).
No action to close down illegal schools
The King’s Speech also made no reference to closing down unregistered, illegal ‘schools’.
Currently, illegal religious schools are able to continue to operate due to loopholes in the law, including a lack of regulations to capture settings that don’t teach anything other than religious scripture; insufficient powers for Ofsted to tackle such settings; and no register of children not in school. These loopholes were due to be closed by parts of the Government’s Schools Bill introduced last year – but for unrelated reasons the Bill was dropped in its entirety by the Government last December.
The result is that children are left trapped in settings where they are seriously unsafe. Ofsted estimates that at least 6,000 children are currently receiving their education in such settings. They often operate in cramped, unhygienic conditions, where there is an appalling lack of safeguarding. The curriculum is usually narrow, focused on learning religious scripture (sometimes including extreme misogynistic and homophobic content) to the exclusion of basic subjects such as English, maths, and science. Former pupils of these schools have described leaving unable to speak English and with the education level of the average nine or ten-year-old. The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse found widespread evidence of sexual abuse.
No action on stamping out conversion therapy
Further, a ban on so-called ‘conversion therapy’ was entirely absent from the King’s Speech.
Conversion therapy is a discredited and harmful practice, usually rooted in false and often pseudoscientific religious beliefs about what causes people to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or trans. Evidence shows that it leads to lasting damage for the people subjected to these ‘treatments’. It can result in lasting mental scars, self-harm, and even suicide. Victims are often young and vulnerable, and are more likely to face abuse from their families or communities because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Humanists UK have long campaigned for a ban and have expressed dismay that the Government has failed to uphold its commitment to protect LGBT people from harm. It now seems highly unlikely that a ban can be enacted before the next election. This omission is the latest disappointment after years of inaction and u-turns.
Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Kathy Riddick commented:
‘We are dismayed at the lack of progress on humanist campaigns in the King’s Speech. The Government has committed to take forward legislation to close down illegal schools and ban conversion therapy for years – but doesn’t bring it forward. It has overlooked its ability to grant legal recognition to humanist weddings in England and Wales, and couples have already waited ten long years for reform.
‘Empty words and promises mean and achieve nothing. We do not know what is causing the delay when the need for reform is crystal clear. We urge the Government to take action while it has the opportunity to do so before the next General Election.’