Equality body’s budget is saved

Ashers Baking Co
Ashers Baking Co

An attempt by TUV leader Jim Allister to slash £250,000 from the Equality Commission’s budget has been blocked with a petition of concern by Sinn Fein and the SDLP.

Mr Allister’s proposed amendment was debated yesterday during discussions surrounding an Assembly motion to approve a range of public spending.

He proposed the cut in protest at the commission taking the owners of Ashers Bakery in Belfast to court for refusing to supply a cake with a gay marriage slogan.

Mr Allister queried the validity of the petition of concern yesterday as he said it had the Speaker’s own name on it, “Tippexed out, which suggests that it came out of the bottom of a drawer and was prepared long before the motion”.

But Speaker and Sinn Fein MLA Mitchel McLaughlin declined to uphold the concerns.

Mr Allister said his proposal was “not an assault on the existence of the Equality Commission”.

He added: “If it were, then, of course, the attempt to reduce its budget would be much more radical, because it has a budget of something approaching £6·5 million.

“This amendment, in a very proportionate way and by a relatively modest amount, seeks to afford MLAs an opportunity to rebuke the Equality Commission for its anti-Christian agenda.”

DUP MLA Paul Givan intervened that the sexuality of the cake buyer was irrelevant, adding that “had a heterosexual male asked for a cake with that message, it would have denied the service to that individual as well”.

But Dominic Bradley for the SDLP said the amendment contained “a worrying inference”.

“The implication of it is that, if we disagree with the direction that the Equality Commission takes on a particular issue, we simply cut its budget,” he said.

UUP MLA Leslie Cree said some of the commission’s decisions were “to say the least, bizarre”.

The Ashers Bakery case is “a classic example of Christian values being regarded by the commission as a bias, and the bakery has been prosecuted”, he added.

But Alliance MLA Judith Cochrane defended the commission as having “an important role”, adding that “to seek to punish it because you do not agree with it could undermine its important work on equality issues”.

For Sinn Fein, Mairtin O Muilleoir suggested that certain MLAs were “perhaps gilding the lily to refer to the Equality Commission as anti-Christian”.

He added: “The bits of the Bible that I read are very strong on equality. Of course, I could be reading the wrong parts, but, for now, I think that we can stand over the work that the Equality Commission is doing.”