Leading article: The minister of inequality

Sunday 28 January 2007 01:00

Perhaps it was a sign of prime-ministerial weakness. We prefer to think that it was a measure of the strength of the argument for equality before the law. Either way, Tony Blair gave up trying to exempt Roman Catholic adoption agencies from the new Equality Act remarkably quickly.

Last week, The Independent on Sunday reported that Ruth Kelly, Secretary of State for Communities, was still trying to secure the exemption, with the Prime Minister's support and against the views of a majority of the Cabinet. We argued that appeasing the wish of Catholic bishops to continue to treat gay couples unequally was justified neither in principle nor in practice. An exemption would have seriously undermined the principle of equal treatment. And the allegedly pragmatic argument that fewer Catholic families would adopt under the new rules seems implausible - it is more important to the welfare of children that more gay couples might do so, and that social attitudes become more accepting of the idea.

With that argument essentially won, the remaining detail is whether the new rules will be phased in over six months or three years. The longer period is the last gasp of the supporters of inequality, however, and there is no need for it. Some ministers have also tried to muddy the clarity of surrender by talking of a compromise that allows individuals working in Catholic adoption agencies to opt out of dealing with gay couples on grounds of conscience. But that has always been possible, and is an internal matter for the agencies themselves.

The larger issue that has been raised but not resolved by last week's dispute over gay adoption is Ms Kelly's position as the cabinet minister responsible for "equalities". It is sometimes suggested that Ms Kelly is a victim of residual anti-Catholic prejudice, and it is occasionally pointed out that the adjective "devout" seems to apply disproportionately to Catholics and almost never to Protestants, Jews and Muslims. Maybe so, but there is a plain lack of fit between the secular principle of equal treatment and a cabinet minister who refuses to say whether or not homosexuality is a sin.

We retain a high regard for Ms Kelly's ability but, in the great cabinet reshuffle that will take place at some point in the next few months, the minister for inequalities should be moved to a post better suited to her strengths.

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