Published: 17/11/2005 Volume 115 No. 5982 Page 13
The NHS will have to ensure it does not discriminate against gays and lesbians under changes to the Equality Bill, currently going through parliament.
The government had refused to include gays and lesbians in the provisions, which originally only applied to discrimination on the grounds of religion. But it backed down following a sustained campaign from gay rights group Stonewall, and accepted amendments to the bill tabled by Labour's Lord Alli.
The NHS will fall foul of the law if it denies people treatment on the grounds of their sexuality.
Trade and Industry Secretary Alan Johnson said: 'This government has made significant strides towards equality for lesbian, gay and bisexual people. But these groups can still face unacceptable discrimination in their everyday lives - for example, getting a raw deal from medical service providers.
That is simply not fair, and We are committed to putting it right.' Stonewall said gay men and lesbians routinely receive 'second class services' from the NHS. The failure to meet the specific health needs of these people had obvious implications for their wider well-being.
Stonewall chief executive Ben Summerskill said: 'This decision will have a hugely significant impact on the lives of hundreds of thousands of lesbians and gay men. In 2005, gay men are still struck off by their NHS GPs. We are delighted that the government has at last accepted the urgent need to end these blatant discriminations which blight people's lives.' Anthony Nicholls, lead for sexual orientation at NHS Employers, said it was 'very depressing' that lesbians are sometimes refused smears for cervical cancer on the basis of their sexuality. 'Some say they are at a lower risk but what we should be doing is treating everyone as an individual, not just on the basis of the stereotype of a lesbian.'
He added: 'We have always been very clear that people's sexual orientation should not affect their ability to access high-quality services. This legislation will be an effective lever to make a real difference.' But Conservative peer Earl Ferrers said he was worried that faith hospitals could fall foul of the legilsation - using the example of a hypothetical private hospital providing fertility services in line with its Catholic beliefs.
He said: 'It is perfectly reasonable to do that. But along comes a lesbian who applies for treatment and is refused. She could argue that the hospital has discriminated against her. Religious organisations could be prosecuted for their religious beliefs and applying them in the way they think is correct.'
Day-to day-discrimination: case studies
A man was referred to a rehabilitation centre for the treatment of alcoholism. He was sent for pastoral counselling, during which he was told that homosexuality was 'a sin' and that if he wanted to recover from alcoholism he would have to stay celibate.
An east London man registered with a doctor close to his home. On his first meeting with the female GP, he discussed his sexual orientation and requested information on sexual health services.
He was asked to wait in reception, and five minutes later was informed he had been removed from the GP's list.
A woman was refused a smear test because she is a lesbian. She was told she was at low risk from cervical cancer because she was not heterosexual, causing her considerable distress and anxiety.