Same-sex bill may be halted over missing objections

Controversial plans to legalise gay marriage are facing the prospect of a legal challenge amid hotly-contested claims SNP ministers ignored thousands of public objections.

Scotland for Marriage is considering lodging an interdict to stop the Bill’s progress through Holyrood after they accused ministers of not considering more than 4,000 responses to a public consultation on the issue.

The campaign group against same-sex marriage has the backing of leading QC Aidan O’Neill who warned ministers may have acted “unlawfully” .

The row centres on 4,000 objections to the legislation which Scotland for Marriage said it sent to the Scottish Government earlier this year. They did not appear in the final results of the public consultation published over the summer and the campaign group claims the Scottish Government has lost them.

SNP ministers have issued a strong rebuttal describing the claims as “simply wrong” and suggesting it was a technical error with the campaign group’s email account. Scotland for Marriage said it has proof of sending the messages to the consultation website.

Any challenge to the legislation, which opinion polls show is backed by the majority of Scots but is fiercely opposed by faith groups, could be very damaging for the SNP.

A Scotland for Marriage spokesman said: “The Scottish Government staged a catastrophically botched sham of a consultation. They have effectively ignored the views of more than 20% of people who responded to the consultation process but whose views have mysteriously disappeared. The Bill must be stopped and the process started again.”

A second public consultation on the detailed content of the same sex marriage Bill published earlier this year had 15,516 responses. Of these 2,371 were categorised as coming from Scotland for Marriage supporters. However, the group claims that it collected and passed on 6,558 responses to the consultation and says it has records of the responses, who made them and when they were made.

Scotland for Marriage has taken legal advice from QC Aidan O’Neill, who has been critical of the Scottish Government’s handling of the legislative plans. An excerpt from his opinion, released by campaigners, states: “It would be competent for an application for judicial review seeking to interdict the Scottish ministers from further action in promoting the Bill and from declaring unlawful any on-going consideration by the Scottish Parliament of this Bill.

“Scottish ministers have acted and are acting unlawfully in introducing and promoting this Bill before the Scottish Parliament in the absence of a proper consideration of the results of its prior consultative process.

“Given the unexplained disappearance of a significant number of responses making points in opposition it cannot be said the Bill as introduced can be said to have resulted from the Scottish Government conscientiously taking into account what their consultation exercise produced before finalising its statutory proposals.”

Former SNP leader Gordon Wilson has warned gay marriage could cost the SNP Government victory in the independence referendum. And a poll published last year found 11% of voters were less likely to vote to end the union if the move went ahead.

However, the proposal does have wider public appeal, with a separate poll showing 64% of Scots agree or strongly agree same-sex couples should have the right to marry.

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “Claims that the Scottish Government has not taken into account all the replies it received are simply wrong. We have fully investigated this issue and are confident all replies received from Scotland for Marriage were factored in. We’ve worked with Scotland for Marriage to establish what happened to the responses. The problem appears to stem from a technical error in the campaign group’s email system. We have sought clarity from Scotland for Marriage on this matter, but they have not yet responded.

“We’ve already informed Scotland for Marriage that we would consider carefully any additional comments about the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Bill which they bring to our attention. “