Oxford students have expressed anger at Nicola Blackwood MP’s decision to vote against the same-sex marriage bill at its third reading in the Commons on Monday. Blackwood has, however, defended her decision on the grounds that the bill does not provide adequately for religious freedom.
The MP for Oxford West and Abingdon indicated that she would reassess her position on same-sex marriage in December, following a letter sent to her by 38 JCR and MCR presidents. In response to this, Blackwood suggested she would vote in favour of the equal marriage legislation if the protection of religious institutions from litigation was guaranteed.
The government has claimed that a religious organisation will not be forced to marry same-sex couples and that there will be a “quadruple lock” of protections in the legislation to underpin this.
Jason Robinson, the former GCR President from St Anthony’s College who signed the letter in December, commented, “It’s highly disappointing that Nicola Blackwood has done a U-turn and ignored the wishes of her constituents, obviously hoping that with the passing of time since her previous statements on the issue few would notice.”
He added, “I’m sure her constituents at her alma mater, St Anne’s College, as well as its neighbour and my own college, St Antony’s College, would like an explanation for the breach of trust from Ms Blackwood and her repeated changing of positions and verbal acrobatics.”
Margery Infield, who also signed the letter in December, said, “To be frank, I do not understand her concerns about the Quadruple Lock’s efficacy and so I am puzzled as to why she would vote against the Bill on these grounds. Having abstained at the Bill’s first reading, I don’t understand why she has since changed her stance.
“By voting against equal marriage, Nicola Blackwood has sent a message to young people in Oxford who identify as LGBT that they are not equal. This is disgraceful. I hope that Ms Blackwood will write to the Presidents who initially contacted her to explain her change-of-heart.
Blackwood also received little praise from the JCR President of her former college. Oscar Boydsaid that he was “extremely disappointed to hear of Nicola Blackwood’s decision to vote against the gay marriage bill, especially after the huge amount of student support at St Anne’s – with 203 members of the JCR and MCR petitioning her to support the bill. It upsets me she’s associated with our college.”
Blackwood explained her reasoning to Cherwell: “Although I voted for two amendments that sought to ensure protection of religious freedom, these did not pass and were not accepted by the Government. In the light of this, and given the vastly contradictory legal opinions offered by Aidan O’Neil QC and Karon Monaghan QC of Matrix Chambers, two of the most pre-eminent human rights barristers in this country, about the strength of the protections provided to religious institutions by the Bill, I am not convinced that these protections will work if challenged in the ECtHR, as is very likely.
“I voted against the Bill quite simply because I could not be sure that the measures in the Bill for the protection of religious freedom would work in the way the Government intends and because the amendments designed to strengthen these protections were not accepted. I felt as though this Bill, through poor drafting and rushed consultation, had become a choice between religious freedom and equality. In the end, as a supporter of both, I could not find a way to support a Bill that did not guarantee the protection of both.”
On Wednesday OUSU passed an emergency motion to mandate the OUSU President “to write to Nicola Blackwood MP on behalf of all Oxford students expressing our anger with her vote against gay marriage, and asking her to explain why she suggested she would vote in favour, given the provisions in the bill that satisfied her initial concerns, then reverted on this statement to students by voting against.”
Jane Cahill, Queen’s JCR President, proposed the motion. She told Cherwell, “The motion not only mandated a letter but mandated OUSU to also inform students of her position. It’s crucial we do this because so many students campaigned and contacted her to tell her their views, and they should know that she ignored them.”
She continued, “The fact that 38 JCR and MCR Presidents signed a letter on this issue should have made it pretty clear to her how students felt. I think it’s shocking she suggested sympathy with these views and then totally betrayed them. This will certainly have an impact on her when students vote in her constituency in 2015.”
David Messling, an OUSU Vice-President, voted against the motion. He explained his reasons, “I’m absolutely behind students getting in contact with their elected representative to hold her to account, and as an OUSU Officer I will follow Council’s policy, however I voted against the motion because I think that marriage should be something more than just a long-term commitment between two people who love each other.”