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Equal Marriage Consultation

Volume 555: debated on Tuesday 11 December 2012

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the Government’s proposals to enable same-sex couples to marry. Copies of the consultation response will be available in the Libraries of both Houses.

Not long ago, talk of marriage as one of the building blocks of society was dismissed by some as out of date. Of course, those of us in this House who have taken a closer interest know that marriage remains something to which most people aspire. Therefore, far from being a peripheral issue, the future of marriage should concern us all.

Today we are setting out how the Government will extend marriage to same-sex couples. The consultation has been the subject of much debate both within and outside the House, and I am immensely grateful to the many hon. Members who have taken time to discuss the proposals with me, adding their voices to the 19 petitions received by the Government and the record 228,000 individuals and organisations who responded to the consultation.

For some, this is a contentious and radical reform, or, indeed, a reform too far. Historical facts, however, show that over the generations marriage has had a long history of evolution. In the 19th century inequalities prevented Catholics, atheists, Quakers and many others from marrying except in the Anglican Church. When that changed, was it accepted without protest? No, I am sure it was not. In the 20th century when the law was changed to recognise married men and married women as equal before law, was that accepted without fierce protest? No. In each century Parliament has acted—sometimes radically—to ensure that marriage reflects our society to keep it relevant and meaningful. Marriage is not static; it has evolved and Parliament has chosen to act over the centuries to make it fairer and more equal.We now face another such moment—another such chance in this new century.

For me, extending marriage to same-sex couples will strengthen, not weaken, that vital institution, and the response I am publishing today makes it clear that we will enable same-sex couples to get married through a civil ceremony. We will also enable religious organisations that wish to conduct same-sex marriages to do so, on a similar opt-in basis to that available for civil partnerships. That is important for the obvious reason that it would be wrong to ban organisations that wish to conduct same-sex marriages from doing so.

I am under no illusions and I am fully aware that the proposals set out today to allow same-sex couples to marry are contentious. I am also clear that there should be complete respect for religious organisations and individual religious leaders who do not wish to marry same-sex couples. The Government must balance the importance of treating all couples equally and fairly with respect for religious organisations’ rights to their beliefs.

We must be fair to same-sex couples and the state should not ban them from such a great institution. Equally, however, we must be fair to people of faith, and the religious protections I will set out will ensure that fairness is at the heart of our proposals. Churches have a right to fight for and articulate their beliefs and to be under no compulsion to conduct same-sex marriages. As the Prime Minister said, we are 100% clear that if any church, synagogue or mosque does not want to conduct a gay marriage it will not—absolutely must not—be forced to hold it.

Part of our response will include a quadruple lock, putting into English law clear and unambiguous protections. I will go into the detail of those locks, but I first want to reiterate comments I made yesterday on Europe. I know that many hon. Members are worried that European courts will force religious organisations to conduct same-sex marriages. The law is complex, but that complexity is absolutely no excuse for misunderstanding the facts. Case law of the European Court of Human Rights, and rights set out in the European convention on human rights, put protection of religious belief in this matter beyond doubt.

The Government’s legal position has confirmed that, with appropriate legislative drafting, the chance of a successful legal challenge through domestic or European courts is negligible. I have therefore asked the Government’s lawyers to ensure that that is the case. Our response sets out clear safeguards—a quadruple lock of measures to protect religious organisations. The Government have always been absolutely clear that no religious organisation will be forced to conduct same-sex marriages. The system of locks will iron-clad the protection in law, adding to the existing protections in European legislation, so that those who do not want to conduct same-sex marriages will never have to.

First, we will write on to the face of the Bill a declaration that no religious organisation, or individual minister, can be forced to marry same-sex couples or to permit that to happen on their premises. Secondly, I will amend the Equality Act 2010 so that no discrimination claims can be brought against religious organisations or individual ministers for refusing to marry a same-sex couple or for refusing to allow their premises to be used for this purpose.

Thirdly, the legislation will make it unlawful for religious organisations or their ministers to marry same-sex couples unless the organisation has expressly opted to do so. As part of this lock, a religious organisation will have to opt in as a whole, and each individual Minister will then have to opt in too. Therefore, if a religious organisation has chosen not to conduct same-sex marriage, none of its Ministers will be able to do so. However, if an organisation has chosen to conduct same-sex marriage, individual Ministers are still under no compulsion to conduct one unless they wish to do so.

Finally, because the Churches of England and Wales have explicitly stated that they do not wish to conduct same-sex marriage, the legislation will explicitly state that it would be illegal for the Churches of England and Wales to marry same-sex couples. That provision recognises and protects the unique and established nature of those Churches. The Church’s canon law will also continue to ban the marriage of same-sex couples. Therefore, even if those institutions wanted to conduct same-sex marriage, it would require a change to primary legislation at a later date and a change to canon law—additional protection that cannot be breached.

It is important to address directly other concerns raised by religious institutions. Other legal cases, including those involving the provision of services such as bed and breakfast or the wearing of religious symbols, have no bearing on the legal situation regarding marriage, because most religious marriage is a commitment made before God—it is at the heart of religious belief. There is clear protection under article 9 of the European convention on human rights and clarity in case law that the European Court of Human Rights considers same-sex marriage to be a matter for each individual member state.

Faith has underpinned British society for centuries, and it is important to me that equality before the law is seen in the same way. The proposals will allow both to co-exist without threat or challenge to the other. People of faith hold views that must be respected. That is why I have been absolutely clear that I would never introduce a Bill that encroaches or threatens religious freedoms. It is with those strongly held views in mind that the proposals presented today have been designed.

I believe the proposals strike the right balance—protecting important religious freedoms while ensuring that same-sex couples have the same freedom to marry as opposite-sex couples. By making marriage available to everyone, we will ensure that it remains a vibrant institution. Our changes will allow more people to make lifelong commitments and enjoy the benefits of an institution that has for centuries lain at the heart of our society.

Thank you, Mr Speaker—it is good to be here again. I welcome the Minister’s commitment to introduce same-sex marriages, but I am at a loss about why she could not have made all those points in the House yesterday, especially as most of them were made by Ministers to the press on Friday.

I agree with the Minister that we should support same-sex marriage. When couples want to get married and to make the long-term, loving commitment it entails, we should celebrate and not discriminate. Marriage is more than a historic tradition; it is about how the state and society today view and value long-term commitment. We should not prevent people from getting married and gaining recognition from the state on grounds of gender or sexuality, and Parliament should not say that some loving relationships have greater value than others.

While Labour was in government, we changed the law many times to tackle outdated prejudice and discrimination against lesbians, gay men, and bisexual and transgender people. Many of those measures were controversial at the time but are now taken for granted even by those who opposed them at the start: an equal age of consent, ending the ban on serving in the armed forces, ending discrimination in adoption and fertility treatment and abolishing section 28. Year after year, we changed the law and argued for the justice and common sense of each of those changes, and opponents were proved wrong—the sky did not fall in. This is the next sensible step. To deny same-sex couples the chance to marry and have their relationship recognised by the state as of equal worth to other loving couples would be unfair and out of date.

The Minister will know that I have argued for some time for those Churches and religious organisations that want to be able to celebrate same-sex marriage to be able to do so. I have met religious leaders from many faiths who want to be able to treat all loving couples equally and who show powerfully that the debate on same-sex marriage should not become polarised between Church and state. There are very different views between and within faiths.

I agree that freedom of religion is important. The Minister is right that no Church or religious organisations should be required to hold same-sex marriage and that respect for freedom of religion should be built into the proposed legislation, but we will need to look at the details of the proposals because it is important that she does not become too defensive about this. Freedom of religion also means that those faith groups, such as the Quakers, the Unitarians and others who want to be able to celebrate same-sex marriage should be able to do so. Those who argue that marriage should never change are out of touch with public feeling. Based on that argument, civil marriage would never have been introduced in the 1830s, married women would never have been given the right to own property, no one would be able to remarry after a divorce and the law would not have been changed to outlaw rape within marriage.

It is deeply disappointing that some in the House yesterday wanted to link same-sex marriage with polygamy or to suggest that it was somehow an affront to those in so-called normal marriages. I hope that those who have opposed the plans in the House and some Church leaders will think carefully and not repeat some of the hysterical language they have used before. These proposals include considerable respect for freedom of religion, freedom of belief and freedom for those who wish to continue to oppose same-sex marriage within their own organisations. I hope, however, that they will now respect the majority of us in the House and beyond who wish to support same-sex marriage and will not try to veto everyone else. No one faith, group or organisation owns marriage.

Surveys have found that seven out of 10 people support extending civil marriage to same-sex couples and that six out of 10 people of faith support extending it too. Marriage has never been a rigid, unchanging institution. It is only when marriage loses its relevance to communities or is seen as outdated or unjust that it risks becoming weakened or forgotten. I hope that the Minister will accept the support for these measures, promote them with confidence, not be defensive about the changes, and urge everyone to support the reforms, which will strengthen marriage and support equality too.

I welcome the right hon. Lady’s support for the statement. She is right to highlight the widespread support for what the Government have outlined outside this place and on both sides of the House.

It is important to pick up on the right hon. Lady’s point about showing respect for both sides of the argument. As we participate in these or any discussions, none of us should try to polarise the debate. The language we use and the stance we take are looked at far and wide—people will be looking at how we deal with these issues—so I hope that hon. Members will appreciate and echo in their comments the respect that I am showing to religious institutions and to people in same-sex relationships. I think I made it clear that it is up to religious institutions to decide how they deal with these matters. That is not being defensive; it is about respecting those important religious beliefs.

Order. Very many Members are seeking to catch my eye, and I am keen to accommodate them, so brevity is of the essence.

The Secretary of State has outlined a major social change that many of those whom we represent find unacceptable. Such significant change should be allowed to evolve, rather than be pushed through. Will the Minister agree to seek an electoral mandate before proceeding?

My hon. Friend is right that many of these matters evolve over time. Our consultation has allowed us to listen to the many and varied views and reflect those views in the proposals. On an electoral mandate, the Conservative party’s commitment was set out in the contract for equalities, which sat alongside our manifesto at the election, and which laid out the importance of considering the case for changing the law.

Does the Minister agree that, given that respect for freedom of religion is vital, it is right that faith groups that wish to marry same-sex couples should be allowed to do so?

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. She correctly says that this proposal commands widespread support in the country, as all opinion polls show, but, just as this measure is about safeguarding the rights of one minority, is it not also important jealously to guard the rights of another—those who choose in conscience not to agree and those Churches that do not wish to conduct such ceremonies? Does she agree that those who were concerned about the proposal, in the belief that Churches would be forced to conduct such ceremonies, need no longer be concerned, now that they understand that there is a lock and that no Church will be forced to do so?

My right hon. Friend has done a great deal of work in this area, and we listen to him with great interest. He is right that the quadruple lock I have outlined today should give clear reassurance to hon. Members and anybody outside listening that there is a considerable and thought-through way of ensuring that ministers and religious organisations are under no compulsion to undertake same-sex marriages, if they believe that it does not accord with their faith. It is absolutely right that we respect the stance taken by religious organisations and that we put in place safeguards at a domestic and European level to ensure that those safeguards are effective.

As chair of the all-party group on equalities, I very much welcome the Minister’s statement. Does she agree that this is not a matter of redefining marriage, but of extending it to a group that currently does not have that right? It is a matter of equal rights in our society in the 21st century.

I thank the hon. Lady for her support. As I outlined in my statement, we have seen marriage evolve over generations to ensure it remains relevant and vibrant, and these proposals do that again for our century, while putting in place that quadruple lock, those safeguards and the clear articulation of our respect for religious belief, so that we strike the right balance between the rights of same-sex couples and those of religious institutions.

I warmly welcome the Government’s announcement. My right hon. Friend has struck the right balance between protecting religious freedoms and extending legal equality to the LGBT community some 43 years after the Stonewall riots. Does she agree that, despite the noises behind me, it will be much less than 43 years before people wonder what all the fuss was about today?

I understand my hon. Friend’s sentiments; I do, however, understand what the fuss is all about. People have deep-seated religious convictions and beliefs. If we are to go forward successfully with these measures, we need to ensure that our respect is clear. I will meet religious institutions later today to talk about these things in more detail and ensure that they are happy with the locks we are putting in place.

Given that the right to marriage is now being extended, albeit in quite a limited form, should not the right to enter into a civil partnership be extended to those heterosexual couples who perhaps do not like the religious connotations of marriage?

I understand the hon. Lady’s point, but we do not feel that there is significant demand for the extension of civil partnerships in the way she describes. What we want to ensure is that marriage is extended to same-sex couples.

I had the privilege of chairing the Civil Partnership Bill through Committee in the House of Commons. Throughout the passage of that legislation, clear undertakings were given that it was not the thin end of a wedge, that it would not lead to marriage and that it satisfied all the necessary legal and equality demands of the time. I accept that the present Government cannot be bound by a previous Government, but it will require a degree of faith—I use the word advisedly—if we are to move forward down this road. The Minister said that 60% of the general public are in favour of this measure. The letters I have handed to Ministers suggest that 98% of my constituents are opposed to it. Will she publish the figures?

I think my hon. Friend might have mistaken what I was talking about. I did not quote a figure in that respect, although I would always be happy to share with him any such figures. There are important differences in perception of civil partnerships and marriage. What we are putting forward today is about ensuring that the universally understood and recognised idea of marriage is available to more people. That is something we should celebrate. I hope I can convince him, through the quadruple lock I have announced, that the sort of protections that he and his constituents would look for are very much to the fore of our minds.

Marriage has changed over the centuries, has it not? For centuries, the Church of England’s doctrine was that the primary purpose of marriage was the procreation of children, but many heterosexual couples either are unable to have children or choose not to have them. Marriage today is, for very many people, about many other things—companionship, sharing one’s life, mutual support and so on. As I said to the Minister yesterday, I find it difficult to believe that any Christian, including many Anglican bishops and clergy, would not want that for every member of their parish. Will she therefore consider not putting such an ultimate lock on the Church of England, so that there is freedom for the Church of England? Those in the Church of England all voted to keep slavery for 30 years, but eventually they changed their minds.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will take time to lobby his previous employer on these matters. Obviously it is for individual religious institutions to look at that. The Church of England can come forward with a change of view at any point in time and we can consider the appropriate actions to be taken.

I thank the Minister for her statement today, but many people in Chesham and Amersham are desperately concerned about the Government’s proposals. What can my right hon. Friend say to my constituents, who genuinely feel that the Government are challenging their deeply held religious beliefs and, despite her many assurances today, do not believe that they are being heard by her or that their religion is truly being protected?

I reassure my right hon. Friend that we have absolutely heard loud and clear the concerns that have been raised. Hence, we have brought forward our proposals today with a quadruple lock, which will provide the reassurance that I know that many people—whether her constituents or others—have been calling for, so that only when an organisation has opted in would it be able to consider undertaking same-sex marriages, and even then ministers can still decide not to do so. The amendments to the Equality Act and the provisions relating to the Church of England all work together to provide, I hope, the sort of reassurance that my right hon. Friend is calling for.

I support the Minister’s statement today. Can she explain the reference in her statement to the “Churches of England and Wales”? She continued: “That provision recognises and protects the unique and established nature of those Churches.” The Church in Wales was disestablished in 1920, so will she explain in what sense she referred to it as an established Church in her statement?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s comments and his support. I was recognising the different obligations on the Church of England and the Church in Wales and ensuring that the protections there reflect those obligations in full, but if he wants to go into any other details, I hope we can do so in the Bill Committee.

During the passage of the civil rights legislation, the Government and the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) repeatedly assured us that civil partnerships would not lead to same-sex marriage. Then, the consultation that we have just had specifically excluded religious marriage between same-sex couples. Now, the Government assure us that human rights legislation is clear. It is not: the Minister should read the verdict of Aidan O’Neill, QC, who says the only absolutely safe defence for Churches is to get out of same-sex marriages. How can she legislate for something she has not consulted on?

I am sure that my hon. Friend would not want me to answer for the hon. Member for Rhondda—I am sure the latter can answer for himself on any undertakings he might have given when he was a Minister. What I am trying to do is ensure that marriage is accessible to more people and that clear safeguards are in place. If my hon. Friend wants to talk to me in detail about those safeguards, I am happy to do that. I know that he, like me, wants to ensure that marriage is special. The provisions we have brought forward today will ensure that it remains that way.

I welcome the move to equalise marriage. It is important that we make the change to allow same-sex couples to mark their love and commitment through marriage. That equality is welcome, but I also support my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy). I know an opposite-sex couple who would have welcomed a civil partnership, a form of commitment that some people want. It is disappointing that it was not considered; it should be in future.

The hon. Lady will know that that was a question in the consultation. There was not the demand in the consultation for the change she describes, but it is also important to note that our priority is to allow same-sex marriage, not to overhaul marriage law. That is where I want to keep the focus.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement and in particular the change in the Government’s position as a result of the consultation on lifting the proposed proscription on religious organisations conducting same-sex marriages. May I issue her a word of caution? It might be better to leave religious institutions to manage their own internal discipline on whether they take part in this, rather than our legislating for it.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is no way in which the Government want to become involved in the philosophy of our religious institutions. It is ultimately for them to take their stance, whether it is the Church of England making it clear up front that it does not wish to be involved in this—although it has the right to change that position over time if it wants—or any other religious institution.

Does the Minister feel that she is competent to act as God—to change and challenge the definition of marriage, between one man and one woman?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not want me to comment on the first part of his question, because that would be inappropriate. What I am doing is ensuring that marriage is a vibrant and relevant institution in our country today, and I am sure he will want to support that. In regard to the part of the country that he represents, the Northern Ireland Government are clearly taking a different view, and we respect that. We should all show respect for both sides of the argument.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on delivering consultation results that are reminiscent of a Liberian presidential election. I believe that these proposals are a constitutional outrage and a disgrace. There is no electoral mandate for these policies. Will she explain what popular support she has received for erasing the words “husband” and “wife” from our laws and customs, as set out in her Department’s equality impact assessment?

I know that my hon. Friend has deep-seated views on this matter, and in saying what I am about to say, I am in no way trying to move him away from them. The consultation was very clear: we were talking about how we were going to implement this proposal, not whether we were going to implement it. We clearly set it out in the contract for equalities that we were going to consider the case for a change in the law, and that is exactly what we have been doing. Also, I would ask him not to pursue the issue of changing the usage of the words “husband” and “wife”, because the Government have absolutely no intention of doing that.

Since 2004, many of my constituents have registered their civil partnerships. If and when the law changes, some of them might want to get married, in either a civil or a religious ceremony. Would that require them to dissolve their civil partnership, or would there be a mechanism in the law to enable them to commute it or have a marriage in addition to their civil partnership?

That is just the sort of important detail that many people will want to hear more about. I can tell the hon. Lady that there will be a facility for people who are in a civil partnership to convert it to a marriage, although there will be no compulsion to do so. I look forward to perhaps hearing her further comments as we discuss the Bill in Committee.

How will the legal protections that the Minister has described apply in those denominations in which authority resides not with a central organisation or with ministers but with the local congregation? Will she bear it in mind that the fear of having to engage in litigation, even if it is unlikely to succeed, is a genuine one in many Churches?

My right hon. Friend also asks a thoughtful question. The reason we are putting in place changes to the Equality Act 2010 is that we want to ensure that people are not fearful of the potential litigation that could occur without those changes. In answer to the first part of his question, those issues would be for local congregations and local representatives of religious institutions to deal with.

I am sure that the Minister will want to acknowledge the initiatives on this issue in the Scottish Parliament. I am particularly proud that Scotland is leading the way on equal marriage. What discussions has she had with the Scottish Government about the necessary amendments to UK-wide equality legislation to ensure that celebrants in Scotland would be protected from legal action if they were to speak out against, or refuse to take part in, same-sex marriage ceremonies?

That, too, is an important detail that has to be got right. We are pleased that we have put forward our proposals now. I think that the Scottish Government might well be putting forward theirs shortly. We have already started to have discussions at official level to ensure that those kinds of issues are dealt with. It is important that this measure should work across the devolved responsibilities, and it is a priority to ensure that that happens.

Is the Minister following developments in Denmark? The Churches there have sought exactly the kind of exclusion that this Government are seeking, but it has been ruled illegal. If that ruling also pertained in this country, what triple or quadruple lock could she possibly offer to Churches in that regard?

I draw the attention of my hon. Friend—she is also a learned Friend—to the case law that is building up in the European Court of Human Rights. It has become clear that this is a question that is determined at local level. Our proposals will make clear in law the intentions of Parliament and the Government at local level, and we believe that that will put the protection of religious belief beyond doubt in this matter.

Further to the point that the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) has just made, may I point out that there is strong support across Scotland for the principle of equal marriage that the Minister has set out today, with 64% of people—people in poor Scotland, rich Scotland, urban Scotland and rural Scotland—supporting it? Will she make it clear, however, whether the Scottish Government have asked this Government for the provisions in this legislation to apply to Scotland if it is passed by this House?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s articulation of the support of the people of Scotland for the measures that this Government have brought forward today, and I thank him for that. The ways in which we would ensure clear read-across between the Scottish provisions and those made by Westminster are just the sort of details that we will be discussing. He would of course not wish me to pre-empt such a consultation by starting those discussions before making a statement like this to the House.

I was up late last night reading “An invitation to join the government of Britain”, the Conservative manifesto; “A future fair for all”, the Labour manifesto; and this wonderful work “Change that works for you”, the Liberal Democrat manifesto, as well as “The Coalition: our programme for government”. There is no mention in those political bibles of redefining marriage; it is not even hinted at. How dare the Minister suggest that she has any right or any mandate to bring in this legislation?

My hon. Friend obviously has very strong views on this. As I have said, I respect those views, but I ask him to ensure that he balances them with a respect for others who might not agree with him. It is clearly set out in the contract for equalities that sat alongside our manifesto that we would consider the case for a change in the law, and that is exactly what we are doing today. I think he should be celebrating this development, and I really hope that I can convince him that the quadruple lock will provide just the kind of assurances that he seeks.

Does the Minister accept that, as well as providing for civil marriage, the state has for some time recognised and registered marriages conducted under the sacramental privilege of various Churches? That legal capacity for Churches has always respected their own rules of ritual eligibility, and has been qualified only by the provision that there be no lawful impediment, such as a close blood relationship, one party already being married or the couple being of the same sex. Will she confirm that her proposal is essentially to remove the lawful impediment to marrying a couple of the same sex, and that it will in no other way encroach on the sacramental privilege of any Church or interfere with any Church’s rules of ritual eligibility?

I can give the hon. Gentleman an absolute assurance that our proposals will do exactly what he is asking for, which is to ensure that there is no compulsion on religious institutions or individuals to undertake same-sex marriages. I ask him to look closely at the details of the quad locks that we have set out in our statement today. Of course we will be working with religious institutions to ensure that those locks work as they need to do, because it is our intention to provide the kind of safeguards that he is talking about.

On the principle of this matter, I sometimes think that we are talking at cross purposes. For me, there is absolutely no dispute that the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt) and I were all created equal in the image of God. That is not the issue. For the Church of England, the uniqueness of marriage is that it embodies the distinctiveness of men and women, so removing that complementarity from the definition of marriage is to lose any social institution where sexual difference is explicitly acknowledged.

My hon. Friend has articulated incredibly clearly the position of that particular religious institution, and I fully respect that view. We have accordingly put in place a clear protection, particularly for the Church of England. The important thing to state here is that that view is not held across the board, and other religious institutions would certainly differ from it. It is important that we have that respect in place, however, and I believe that our proposals will ensure that the Church of England can continue to hold those religious beliefs without fear of their being undermined.

The Minister just spoke about the special protection for the Church of England. The Church of England plays a special role in this country as our established Church, so is she satisfied that it is once again opting out of equalities legislation?

The spirit of our debate today has been one of trying to find a way to ensure that we can provide protection for religious belief. I urge the hon. Lady to think about that carefully, because in the context of the provision of our quadruple lock it is important that we provide for that change in the Equality Act if we are to give the certainty that, as other hon. Members have highlighted, is so important.

Will my right hon. Friend accept that the great majority of people in this country—62% according to ComRes—regard marriage as being between a man and a woman, a situation that has persisted for centuries; that neither she nor the Prime Minister, and neither the Deputy Prime Minister nor the Leader of the Opposition, has any mandate whatsoever to inflict this massive social and cultural change on our country; that the consultation exercise has been a complete sham; and that the Government had made up their mind in advance what outcome they wanted and failed to take into account the 600,000 people who signed the Coalition for Marriage petition?

I hope I can reassure my hon. Friend and neighbour in Hampshire that we have absolutely looked not only at the consultation responses but at the petitions we have been given, although they are not part of the consultation response because they were not part of the consultation. It is important that we consider both sides of the debate, understand the strength of feeling and make provisions for people’s religious beliefs. I do not ever want to try to trade statistics in this place, because the subject we are dealing with is even more important than that. It concerns respect for people’s differences, and we have an obligation to ensure that those differences can be protected in law.

I welcome the statement and indicate my support for this change. Is it the Government’s intention that same-sex couples have the option of a civil partnership or a marriage, or will marriage simply become the standard means for any couple to affirm the status of their relationship?

As a result of looking at the consultation responses, we believe that to protect those who have entered into a civil partnership we should continue to have that option available. There will be an option.

I am prepared to support this measure on the grounds of equality before the law, provided that religious freedom is protected. Will my right hon. Friend comment on my remaining worry that teachers of particular faiths, whether they are in faith schools or non-faith schools in the state sector, might be expected to teach something that goes against their conscience?

I would expect my hon. Friend to bring up another important issue, and he did. I can reassure him that nothing will change in what children are taught. Teachers will continue to be able to describe their own belief that marriage is between a man and a woman while, importantly, acknowledging that there can also be same-sex marriages. In faith schools in particular, people will want to ensure that the beliefs of that faith are clearly and well articulated for children.

I have had the single largest postbag that I have had as an MP on this issue from those who are opposed to it. The churches are opposed and my constituents are opposed—99.9% of the people in the area I represent are opposed to this legislative change. The Minister suggested in her answer to an earlier question that the 550,000 people who signed the Coalition for Marriage petition were ignored or sidelined. She will understand why many of us look on that with suspicion. Why was the Coalition for Marriage petition excluded from the headline figure? Is it not a case of some people being more equal than others?

The hon. Gentleman is obviously right to say that there are strong feelings and I absolutely understand what he is saying. I can reassure him that we have considered all petitions and all responses to the consultation—more than 200,000 of them—which has taken a while. I remind him of the starting point for the consultation, however: it was not whether we would proceed with this measure, but how we would proceed with it. On that basis, I have made proposals today that I believe will provide the sort of safeguards that his constituents have been raising.

Order. A great number of hon. and right hon. Members are still seeking to catch my eye and I want to accommodate them on this very important matter. I hope they will help me to help them by being brief. Perhaps we can be given a textbook example of the genre by Mr Bernard Jenkin.

I commend my right hon. Friend for the sensitive way in which she is approaching the issue and welcome her statement and the legislation she is proposing. Does she agree that it is legislation not to change the society in which we live but to recognise how society has already changed, and that we should afford the freedom to marry to every citizen in this country?

I have long wanted to see a society in which couples who love each other, whether they are of the same sex or the opposite sex, can demonstrate that love and commitment in front of their family and their friends and for that commitment to be recognised by society. Does the Minister agree that all of us who want to see such a society should be very proud of her announcement today, which is a major strike for civil rights and equality in our country?

Yes, although it will now be important to work with religious institutions to ensure that there is happiness about the safeguards.

Was the hon. Gentleman in the Chamber at the start of the statement? He was. We must hear him. I call Mr David Simpson.

Further to a previous question, if a school teacher who teaches religious education believes that the Bible teaches that this act is wrong and tells her pupils that, will she be protected?

The answer is absolutely yes, if that is the individual’s belief. That is particularly important for faith schools, but as we would expect from all our teachers, we would want to ensure that such a belief was expressed in a balanced way.

I am a member of a party that supports equal marriage, but the Minister none the less must take into account that this was in no election manifesto, that it was not in the coalition agreement and that many members of my constituency, my church and my party feel that much more work must be done to see whether it is possible to redefine civil marriage separately from the traditional definitions of religious marriage. She therefore needs to proceed very carefully and cautiously, engage with the faith leaders to seek their agreement before proceeding, and proceed with draft legislation before moving speedily to get something on the statute book.

My right hon. Friend obviously has strong views on the question. My priority is to allow same-sex couples to marry and not to overhaul marriage law, but he is right to say that we need to work with religious leaders. I will start those discussions as soon as the statement has finished.

As all marriages now are between different-sex people, it is surprising that only 61% regard marriage in such a way—it should be 100%. Like my hon. Friends who disagree with me on this, I would hope that 200 years ago I would have been part of the Clapham sect, and I think it would be a good idea to have a joint opinion poll from the Freedom to Marry campaign and the Coalition for Marriage asking a yes/no question. We could then work from the same figures, which would probably show that two thirds of the population want this legislation to go through. I support that.

I would suggest that it is the role of Parliament to debate such issues. I would not want to rely on opinion polls to determine such an important issue.

We all represent a great many young constituents, although they are perhaps not our most active correspondents on this issue. Life is very tough for many young gay people, so does the Minister agree that this is an important way of sending out a signal to them as they grow up in our society that we value and treat them equally?

The Government are hiding behind triple locks and quadruple locks on what may or may not happen in churches. Let me point out that although there are religious and civil ceremonies, there is only one marriage, and many people of all faiths and no faith are deeply offended—I repeat, deeply offended—by these proposals.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that there is one marriage—there are different ways into it, but there is just one concept of marriage. The locks that we propose are very much about listening to people’s concerns, but not just listening, as they are also about acting and ensuring that the safeguards are effective.

My right hon. Friend well knows that schools are required to teach children about family life. Given that the Government are proposing to redefine marriage, which is at the heart of the matter, I echo other Members in asking what concrete safeguards the Government propose to put in place to protect Christian teachers who teach that marriage should only be between a man and a woman.

I reiterate and underline what I said earlier—that nothing we have announced today will change how children are taught. Teachers will be able to describe their belief that marriage is between a man and a woman, but as with all teaching, we would of course expect that to be done in a balanced manner.

I warmly welcome what my right hon. Friend has said today, but some of my constituents and some of my closest friends on these Benches have real concerns. Is not the message today that we must find a way to ensure that those churches that do not wish to conduct same-sex marriages do not have to, but that while they rightly demand that their religious freedom is protected, they cannot deny others who wish to conduct these marriages the opportunity to do so?

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend, who I think has articulated the position absolutely correctly. That is the Government’s position.

Yesterday I asked the Minister about polygamy, and she was unable to answer my concerns. Is she aware of the campaigns now taking place in Canada to legalise polygamy, since marriage was redefined there in 2005?

I think I did answer my hon. Friend’s question yesterday by saying that marriage in this country is between two people.

Again, that is an important detail, which I am sure will be looked at further when the Bill is examined in Committee. I can say clearly to my hon. Friend—the consultation document says that there must be clarity on this issue—that no changes to the laws of adultery are proposed and that same-sex couples will have the current laws of adultery available to them if those laws apply. If they do not apply, there will also be grounds of “unreasonable behaviour” for individuals to seek divorce if the behaviour falls short of adultery. I believe that this reflects the current situation for civil partnerships.

In April this year, when the Scottish National party produced a consultation that allowed anonymous responses, the Conservative party said:

“Nothing the SNP now assert on the basis of a rigged consultation to which SNP members can contribute anonymously and as many times as they like will command confidence”.

Why, then, in the case of this consultation, in which 60% of the respondents were anonymous on a matter that was not in the manifesto and when my constituents do not want this to happen by a factor of 25:1, are the Government pressing ahead with it?

I can perhaps reassure my hon. Friend that the consultation we undertook was carried out correctly and properly, and that proper safeguards were put in place to avoid any multiple submissions. I urge my hon. Friend to consider the fact that while many people who do not agree with the Government’s position may contact him about their views, there may be many others who do agree with it but whose voices are not as strong.

Given that the proposals are clearly based on the principle of equality, does it not make the refusal to offer civil partnerships to heterosexual couples completely incapable of coherent explanation and thus subject to obvious legal challenge in the future?

We are saying that we have not identified a need for opposite-sex civil partnerships and, as I have already said, my priority is to allow same-sex couples to get married without undertaking a complete overhaul of either civil partnerships or marriage law in general.

I love being married. Surely it cannot be right in this day and age to deny the symbolism around marriage to our constituents on the basis of their sexuality. Does the Minister join me in looking forward to a day when all faiths, not just the Church, guarantee full equality to all women and to all people whatever their sexuality?

I understand my hon. Friend’s sentiment and, on a personal level, I have a great deal of sympathy with what she says. As a House of Parliament, however, we need to respect the fact that not everybody is in the same position on these issues. I believe there are important merits in offering marriage to more and more people, and I hope every Member will join me in celebrating the importance of marriage in our society today.

As a supporter of the institution of marriage, I welcome in principle the Government’s desire to extend it to more people through equal civil marriage. However, I and many of my constituents are deeply concerned that the extension of this legislation into the religious domain could increase the risk of costly legal challenges to the Churches and religious groups. Can the Minister offer any clear assurance that the Government’s legal advice is not only that such challenges would fail but that the Churches can be protected from extra costs that might be imposed?

I reiterate that the triple lock is designed to make sure that changes in the Equality Act 2010 work at a local level so that churches and, indeed, that individuals do not face the prospect of challenge and that any challenge will be directed at the Government. Even more important, case law and the European convention ensure that we have put beyond doubt the protection of religious belief in this matter. These are the sort of concrete reassurances that I am sure my hon. Friend and his constituents would welcome.

A year ago, the Prime Minister described the United Kingdom as a Christian country. Does my right hon. Friend, whom I greatly like and admire, recognise that this legislation will mark a significant moment as this country will be passing a law that is directly contrary to what Jesus said about marriage in Mark chapter 10 and Matthew chapter 19?

My hon. Friend is right that, as I outlined in the statement, this is a significant moment. We have faced other such significant moments in the evolution of marriage, and Parliament has been a radical campaigner on this issue over the centuries. I hope that my hon. Friend, who I know takes a thoughtful approach to this matter, will agree to look at the quadruple lock that I proposed today. I would certainly be happy to sit down with him and talk about it further if he has any further anxieties.

Notwithstanding my right hon. Friend’s comments, can she explain how the Bill will guarantee that my constituents, including teachers or public sector workers who disagree with the state’s new definition of marriage, will not fall foul of employment laws for expressing their personal views in the workplace? Will it not just be a lawyer’s paradise?

I can understand why my hon. Friend wants to raise that question today. Recent case law, which we would not want to go into on the Floor of the House, has highlighted how individuals who have raised their own views on the issue of equal marriage have experienced problems. What I have been reassured about, however, is the fact that those issues have been resolved and the courts have been very clear that individuals are entitled to their private views on this matter and that those views should not be held against them.

I understand that the head of the Government Equalities Office told representatives of the Roman Catholic Bishops’ Conference that each signatory to the coalition for marriage petition would be counted as an individual response to the Government’s consultation. Because of that assurance, many supporters of traditional marriage focused on that petition. Why did it not happen? Was it because including those half a million and more signatures would have shown a substantial majority against plans to redefine marriage—something that is also confirmed by my constituency postbag?

Let me emphasise again that we have read all the petitions and all the submissions to the consultation, and reassure my hon. Friend that every single one of those submissions has validity. However, I must also remind her that our starting point was not whether we would introduce these measures, but how we would do so. While the strength of feeling is clearly there, other Members have mentioned organisations and individuals who support these measures, and we must ensure that we take a balanced approach.

I am afraid that that answer simply is not good enough. I put it to the Government that their professed deep-seated and heartfelt commitment to equality does not appear to have applied to the consultation itself. Can the Minister explain to the very fair-minded residents of the Kettering constituency why the views of the overwhelming majority of respondents have been rejected, including a massive petition with more than half a million signatures?

I know that my hon. Friend speaks powerfully for the people of Kettering, and I know that he will want to stand up for the wide range of views that undoubtedly exist in his constituency. I assure him that all those views have been considered, and that they have helped us to form our response today. We have proposed a quadruple lock to protect religious institutions, but it is also important for us to represent people who may even live in his constituency: gay couples who want to be able to celebrate their love and commitment to each other through marriage.

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement and this important legislation. On Saturday I had the pleasure of attending the installation of the Rev. Pat Bateman as vicar of All Saints church in Ilkley. Several religious leaders who attended the ceremony expressed a fear that they might be forced to conduct gay marriages in their churches. Can my right hon. Friend reassure them that that is not the case?

I welcome my hon. Friend’s support. I can certainly reassure him that it will be for religious organisations and, indeed, individual ministers to discuss the issue themselves, and to examine the protections that we have introduced in order to ensure that no ministers or religious organisations will be forced to conduct same-sex marriages if they feel that that does not accord with their own religious beliefs.

The Minister has said today that she has given a clear articulation of protection for religious freedoms by introducing a quadruple lock. However, she has also said that there is a “negligible” chance that that will be challenged. Can she tell us what the risk of a challenge is in percentage terms?

I remind my hon. Friend that it is not just the quadruple lock that will provide that protection. The case law of the European Court of Human Rights, and the rights in the European convention, put the protection of religious belief in this matter beyond doubt, and I ask him to focus on that.

I warmly welcome the Minister’s commitment to the introduction of equal marriage. I also welcome the quadruple lock guarantee which will ensure that churches that do not wish to conduct such ceremonies do not have to do so. We must accept, however, that the consultation process has been divisive. Does she agree that we should now seek to reassure all those churches that they have nothing to fear from the legislation?

I hope I can convince my hon. Friend that the consultation was absolutely fair, but he is right to say that we now need to work not just with the churches but with religious institutions throughout our country to ensure that the safeguards that are clearly necessary are effective.

Many Macclesfield residents have expressed concern about the legislation. Having known the Minister for many years, I am aware that family and marriage are very important in her own life. What those residents want to know is how churches and faith groups will be protected not just from human rights laws but from equalities legislation. That is what worries them.

The people of Macclesfield are well represented by my hon. Friend, and I know that the importance of family ranks high in his life as well. I can assure him that the amendments that we will introduce to the Equality Act 2010 will provide protections in local law to ensure that individuals, and indeed religious institutions, need have no fear of action being brought against them on equality grounds. I hope that he will be able to convey those reassurances to his constituents.

Although the debate is still divisive, I welcome the balance struck by my right hon. Friend’s proposals to make marriage—which so many of us value hugely—available to all who want to be married, while protecting the freedoms of those who disagree. The last of the four important proposed legal locks recognises the opposition of the Church of England, and will make it illegal for same-sex marriages to be conducted in C of E churches. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that it will be possible for Roman Catholic and evangelical churches to opt out in a similar way if they so wish?

My hon. Friend is right to say that what we are trying to establish today is a balanced approach. I can tell him that the various mechanisms that I have outlined today will provide protections that both the Roman Catholic Church and the Evangelical Church have identified to me at both national and local level.

Will the Minister please tell the House how many respondents to the consultation were resident outside the United Kingdom?

The hon. Gentleman will know that there were more than 200,000 responses to the consultation, and that people outside the United Kingdom were given an opportunity to participate. We collected all the information and examined it in detail, and it helped us to think about how, not whether, we should implement the proposals. That is what I ask my hon. Friend to focus on.

Can my right hon. Friend unequivocally guarantee freedom of conscience and speech to my constituents, at work and elsewhere, allowing them to disagree publicly with the redefinition of marriage without sanction by their employers?

As I said earlier, a case involving an individual who articulated a view about equal civil marriage has already gone to court. I think that the courts have upheld the view that individuals are entitled to their private views, and that their jobs can be safeguarded on those grounds.

Order. The hon. Gentleman has perambulated around the Chamber. If he assures me that he has at all times remained within it, we must hear him. It is a very curious approach, but it is not of itself a breach of the Standing Orders of the House. [Hon. Members: “He has been hiding.”] He has been hiding! Let us now hear from Mr Alec Shelbrooke.

I am most grateful to you, Mr. Speaker. I have indeed moved around. I was not going to get involved, but I just want to say this to the Minister. The fact is that the vast majority of my constituents simply do not believe that the European Court of Human Rights will not take this further. I think that a great many Members on this side of the House would support the Bill if we withdrew from the European convention on human rights and introduced a British Bill of Rights. That, by the way, was in the Conservative manifesto.

I know that my hon. Friend never hides his views—although he may have been hiding himself from you in the Chamber today, Mr. Speaker—but I ask him to join me in trying to move away from the hyperbole that has been employed in campaigns that we have all witnessed in recent months. When the facts are looked at, the safeguards are clear. I remind him—at the risk of repeating myself unduly—that the case law of the European Court of Human Rights, as well as the European convention, clearly puts the protection of religious belief in this matter beyond doubt, and that is the Government’s legal position.

The Minister herself described the institution of marriage as a building block of our society, but last year nearly 50% of all babies were born to couples who were not married. Given that marriage rates in Spain and Holland collapsed after the introduction of same-sex marriage, does she not fear that in this country even fewer couples intending to have children will choose to marry?

I respect my hon. Friend’s views on this, and share his concern that many people today do not view marriage as relevant to them. I hope all Members will take this issue very seriously, because we should encourage more people to see marriage as an important way to cement their relationships and show commitment and responsibility, and so strengthen our society. I do not think that what my hon. Friend has said would happen in the UK, however. I think our proposals will be welcomed and will serve to promote the relevance of marriage today.

How many people of the Muslim faith—and of the Sikh and Hindu faiths—responded to the consultation, and how many were for this proposal and how many were against? I must tell the Minister that in my constituency concerns have been raised with me about this redefinition by people from the churches, the mosques and the gurdwaras. I ask her to take that on board.

My hon. Friend is right to suggest that this issue is important for not only the Churches, but for faith groups across the board. That is why the protections I have outlined will work across the board. This is not a numbers game, but I am happy to look at whether we can provide the detailed information that my hon. Friend requests.

I welcome the tone in which the Minister delivered the statement. One concern, however, is that there has not yet been any mention of what changes will be made to the Marriage Act 1949, which guarantees the rights of individuals to get married in a place of their choosing where they live or where they have a residence, and that many religious institutions—particularly those with relatively small congregations—will be forced against their will to host marriages.

My hon. Friend must look at the quadruple lock I have announced today for the reassurance he seeks. Under that, there is no way a religious institution or individual would be forced to do what he says. I have already acknowledged the particular situation of the Church of England, which is why we have taken specific measures to protect it.

I would like to reassure the House that, as an unmarried heterosexual woman, if these measures go through I will certainly consider the institution. The heart of the matter, however, is whether it will be possible to allow same-sex marriages, whether civil or religious, and still protect those religious organisations that do not wish to participate. What can the Minister do to reassure Members who might be sceptical that that will be possible?

I believe that we can provide local reassurance through the law, and I have already outlined the European situation. By working together with religious organisations, we can build confidence in what we are proposing. It is right that following this statement we should work collaboratively, and I would be happy to meet any Member who wants to discuss these matters in more detail.

I do not agree with the redefinition of marriage, and nor do the majority of the constituents of South Dorset. Other than arrogance and intolerance, what right have the Minister and the Government got to stamp their legislative boot on religious faith?

My hon. Friend represents the people of South Dorset extremely well. He rightly vigorously puts forward his own views, and I respect that. However, the state has had a stake in the institution of marriage for more than 170 years, and I therefore believe it is right that the state asks itself whether it is right to exclude people from the institution of marriage simply because they are gay. I do not believe that is right, which is why these changes have been proposed and the Government are presenting our response to the consultation.

I congratulate the Minister on her comments. The state should not bar a couple who want to marry just because of their gender, and the state should not bar a religious body that wishes to do so from conducting same-sex marriages. Will she also look, however, at providing in England legally binding humanist weddings, which work so successfully in Scotland?

That is a detail I am happy to look at. It is not part of our proposals today, but, in the spirit of collaboration, I will be happy to talk to my hon. Friend about it.

I have listened to the Minister’s remarks on the legal robustness of this possible change in legislation and redefinition of marriage, but I am somewhat sceptical. Why has she not made public the Attorney-General’s specific advice on this matter?

As I am sure my hon. Friend knows, any advice the Government receive is privileged information. I have set out the Government’s legal position, which is straightforward and clear, and I hope it will provide my hon. Friend with the reassurance he seeks.

I am grateful to the Minister, the shadow Minister and all colleagues. Some 62 Back Benchers were able to contribute in 60 minutes of Back-Bench time. That shows what we can do when we put our minds to it. I warmly thank the Minister of State for her statement.