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Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill

Volume 558: debated on Tuesday 5 February 2013

Second Reading

There is a four-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches, and 71 Members want to speak. We will do our best to accommodate them all, but it will be appreciated if Members do not keep coming up to the Chair asking whether, and if so, when, they will be called. They shall just have to be patient. We look forward to the debate.

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Mr Speaker, you and I know that every marriage is different—indeed, any husband or wife of a Member of this House has a distinct set of challenges to face every day—but what marriage offers us all is a lifelong partner to share our journey, a loving stable relationship to strengthen us and mutual support throughout our lives. I believe that that should be embraced by more couples. The depth of feeling, love and commitment between same-sex couples is no different from that depth of feeling between opposite-sex couples. The Bill enables society to recognise that commitment in the same way, too, through marriage. Parliament should value people equally in the law, and enabling same-sex couples to marry removes the current differentiation and distinction.

There is no single view on equal marriage from religious organisations. Some are deeply opposed to it; others tell us that they see this as an opportunity to take their faith to a wider community.

Will the right hon. Lady give the House a cast-iron guarantee that, if the Bill becomes law, no religious denomination, no place of worship and no clergyman—or equivalent in other religions—will be forced through legal action in the courts or in the European Community to carry out weddings against their wishes?

The right hon. Gentleman pre-empts some of the later parts of my contribution. I can tell him that we have taken seriously all the points that he has raised about the need for protection. He will see how we have put those measures in the Bill in some detail.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the letter that was written to hon. Members by Lord Carey of Clifton on the issue of equality between same-sex and different-sex couples? In it, he talks about

“the failure of the Government to address the important issues of consummation and adultery. While these concepts will continue to remain important aspects of heterosexual marriage, they will not apply to homosexual marriage. On the one hand, this does nothing to promote the ideal that marriage is both equal and should be a lifelong union.”

My hon. Friend will know that there is already no legal requirement for consummation. Our provisions will mean that adultery stays as it is and that couples will have the opportunity to cite unreasonable behaviour, as do many already. The issues that he raises are dealt with very well in that way.

As I was saying, there is no single view on equal marriage from religious organisations. I also know that some colleagues in the House feel that they cannot agree with the Bill for principled religious reasons, and I entirely respect that stance. I do not think that it is the role of the Government to tell people what to believe, but I do think that Parliament and the state have a responsibility to treat people fairly.

Will the Minister take this early opportunity to confirm that the opponents of the Bill, including many hundreds of my constituents, are not homophobic, not bigots and not barking?

I very much support the Bill, but I regret that it is being programmed. Consideration should be on the Floor of the House and there should be two days for the Second Reading debate so that those on both sides of the argument can fully express their views.

My hon. Friend knows that I take these matters very seriously indeed. We have to ensure that there is sufficient debate, and I think that we have made sure through the usual channels that that is the case. I hope that he will be pleased with the progress that we have made on that.

I should like to make a little more progress. I will take some more interventions in a moment.

Some say that the Bill redefines marriage, but marriage is an institution with a long history of adaptation and change. In the 19th century, Catholics, Baptists, atheists and many others were allowed to marry only if they did so in an Anglican Church, and in the 20th century, changes were made to recognise married men and married women as equal before law. Suggestions that the Bill changes something that has remained unchanged for centuries simply do not recognise the road that marriage has travelled as an institution.

Will the Minister bear in mind the fact that there was a great deal of opposition to the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967? I voted for the Bill, but there was much opposition to it. Does she agree that today hardly a single Member would wish to return to the situation prior to the 1967 Bill and that it is possible that if this measure is passed it will be generally accepted in the same way within a few years?

I am sure the hon. Gentleman is right in what he says. What we have to do is not just legislate for today, but for the future.

I am going to support the Bill tonight because I think the principle is right: I am not sure why I should enjoy a right or a privilege that is denied to others. But why has the Minister not confined herself to civil marriage? Would that not be a much easier area for Parliament to deal with?

The hon. Gentleman will know that many religious organisations have expressed an interest in being able to undertake same-sex marriages. We believe it is right for them to be able to do that. That is why the Bill contains provisions for them to do that, if they so choose.

If hon. Members will allow me to make a little more progress, I shall take more interventions later.

As we have heard, marriage should be defended and promoted in every way. To those who argue that civil partnerships exist and contain very similar rights, that marriage is “just a word” and that this Bill is unnecessary, I say that that is not right. A legal partnership is not perceived in the same way and does not have the same promises of responsibility and commitment as marriage. All couples who enter a lifelong commitment together should be able to call it marriage.

I will vote for the Bill’s Second Reading because I support the principle that the Minister has just enunciated, but the last intervention made an important point about ensuring that we legislate carefully on those things that the state can deal with, which is civil marriage, and not trespass on religious beliefs. Will she make it absolutely clear that she will be open both in Committee and on Report to amendments that might give us a much better balance and be capable of reassuring many more people?

My right hon. Friend is right to raise this issue. What I can do is reassure him that we have been working very closely with the Church of England and the Church in Wales, and both organisations feel that there is a set of protections, which the Church of England in particular said it did not want to see changed.

On religious organisations, the Minister will know that 5% of the UK population is Muslim. What proportion of the Muslim community responded to the consultation? How many were for it and how many were against it? My understanding is that not a single mosque responded by supporting the redefinition of marriage.

My hon. Friend will know that this issue is not about numbers; it is about working together and providing protections to make sure that individuals from whatever faith group can continue to be assured that they can practise according to their faith. That is the point of today’s debate.

I very much welcome the Bill, but does the Minister understand the disappointment of those who believe that the Church of England is not being given the choice accorded to other faiths to marry same-sex couples if they so choose and that far from being forced to marry same-sex couples, the Church of England is being forced not to marry them, even if some elements would like to do so?

I can give the hon. Lady complete reassurance today that this Bill is not in any way trying to treat the Church of England or indeed the Church in Wales differently. The end result for the Churches will be exactly the same as for other religious institutions. The difference, of which I am sure she will be aware, is that the Church of England and the Church in Wales have different duties under common law to marry people in their parishes. The canon law of the established Church of England is part of the law of the land, so we need different measures in place to recognise those differences. I absolutely assure her that if either of those organisations chose to opt in to same-sex marriage, the provisions of the Bill would allow them to do so.

If hon. Members will allow me to make a little more progress, we can have further interventions later.

It is clear from the contributions we have just heard that there is no doubt about the fundamental importance of faith in this country today, but I do not believe that as a country we have to choose between religious belief and fairness for same-sex couples. It is important to remember that religious views on same-sex marriage differ, too. The Quakers, the Unitarians and the liberal Jewish communities have all said that they want to conduct same-sex marriages. Indeed, Paul Parker, who speaks for the Quakers, said that the first same-sex marriage in a Quaker meeting will be

“a wonderful day for marriage, and…religious freedom”.

We have to respect and take note of that.

Our proposals will ensure that all religious organisations can act in accordance with their beliefs because equal marriage should not come at the cost of freedom of faith, nor freedom of faith come at the cost of equal marriage. We are capable of accommodating both. This Bill does so in a very straightforward manner.

Will the right hon. Lady assure us that, if at any time in the future the European Court of Human Rights ruled that a church not wishing to conduct a gay wedding ceremony was in breach of a discrimination Act, we would defy the European Court and not try to placate it as we did over prisoner voting?

My hon. Friend will find the sort of detail and the assurances he is looking for in a later part of my speech.

The right hon. Lady is absolutely right about the importance of faith. I as a Christian have no worries about voting for this Bill. What greater example of the equalities agenda could there be than Jesus Christ himself?

The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point, which shows that views on this matter do not follow party lines or lines of membership of a particular religious institution, but are far more nuanced than that.

Let me make a tiny bit of progress before taking further interventions.

I shall now deal with the Bill’s provisions. As hon. Members will know, it has three parts. Part 1 enables same-sex couples to marry in civil ceremonies and allows religious organisations to opt in, while protecting those that do not. It also protects religious ministers and allows for the conversion of a civil partnership to a marriage. Part 2 enables an individual to change their legal gender without having to end their marriage. It also provides for overseas marriages in consulates or on armed forces bases. Part 3 allows for the standard final provisions, including secondary legislation.

As hon. Members will have seen when they studied the detail of the Bill, I have been true to my word and ensured that there is clear protection of all religious organisations and ministers who are opposed to this measure. All religious organisations—whether they be Jewish, Muslim, Christian or any other—will be able to decide for themselves if they want to conduct same-sex marriages. The Bill provides for and promotes religious freedom through the Government’s quadruple lock. These protections are absolutely carved on the face of the Bill and are the foundation on which the legislation is built.

Will the Minister explain why the Government are bringing this Bill forward now when it was not in the Queen’s Speech, when it has not been the subject of a Green or a White Paper and when the Government promised to do other things, such as bring in married couple’s tax allowances, that they are not doing? Is not the truth of the matter that this is about low political calculation and detoxifying the Tory brand rather than anything to do with principle?

The right hon. Gentleman and I will have to disagree on that. What we are doing is clearly an important part of the way in which we can make this country a fairer place in which to live, and the measure was clearly flagged up in our document “A Contract for Equalities” at the time of the election. I can tell him that we will continue to work with our colleagues in Northern Ireland to ensure that there is the right recognition of English and Welsh same-sex marriages in that part of the United Kingdom as well.

The Minister has referred to the protections in the Bill, but we have already seen the case of Mr Adrian Smith, who lost his job, spent an enormous amount of money on legal fees, and suffered a 40% cut in his salary after making a private comment on a Facebook site. How, in future, are we to protect people such as Mr Smith who are working in the public sector up and down the country?

My hon. Friend, who I know takes a deep interest in these matters, is entirely right to raise that point, but the case he has highlighted proves that individuals can express their religious beliefs. The court found in that individual’s favour, which I think is important and should be noted by employers throughout the country.

The Minister has spoken about protections for religious ministers. Can she offer the same protections to registrars? Given that the number of mixed-sex marriages should not be expected to fall, can registrars be confident that even if they decline to take on and preside over the new same-sex marriage registrations, they will not lose their jobs or experience negative employment consequences?

As my hon. Friend will know, civil registrars are public servants. Recent court rulings have made clear that they must balance carefully their right to a religious belief with their equal right to ensure that they provide services in a way that does not discriminate against individuals. It is a very difficult issue, but I know that he has raised it for the right reasons, and I am sure that it will be considered very closely in Committee.

Roman Catholic Spain legalised same-sex marriage in 2005. Does my right hon. Friend know whether there has been a single referral to the European Court of Human Rights?

My right hon. Friend failed to answer the question put by the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds). Can she tell the House, and the people of this country, where she has a mandate to inflict this massive social and cultural change? It was not in our party’s manifesto, and the Prime Minister told Adam Boulton on Sky that he had no plans to introduce it. There are many major issues with which the country needs to deal. This is an irrelevance, and it should not be pursued through the House, least of all with a three-line Whip on a programme motion that gives us no real opportunity to debate it.

My fellow Hampshire Member and I know that we disagree on this matter, but we do so in a very fair and even-handed manner, and I want to ensure that that fairness and even-handedness are present in all aspects of the Government’s policy. I think that there is an extremely strong argument for the Bill to be passed, and I am presenting it today. The purpose of parliamentary debates is to discuss such matters in more detail.

I think that I should make a little more progress. I will take further interventions in a moment.

I know that for many of my colleagues, the crux of the issue lies in the protections that I have mentioned, particularly the protections for the Church of England and the Church in Wales. They have a unique position because of the legal duty of their clergy to marry their parishioners, and furthermore, because the Church of England is the established Church, its canon law is part of the law of the land. As I said to the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), the Bill provides for no disadvantageous or, indeed, favourable treatment for the Church of England or the Church in Wales. It simply provides a pragmatic way of putting them in essentially the same position as other religious organisations. If they decide that they want to marry same-sex couples, they can do so.

We have worked hard with a wide range of religious organisations, including both those Churches, to ensure that the protections in the Bill work. Indeed, the Church of England has commented on the constructive way in which we have consulted it about effective legal safeguards, ensuring that its concerns are properly accommodated. The Church in Wales has confirmed that the Bill gives it protection, while still enabling it to make its own decision on same-sex marriage.

Let me now turn to an issue that has already been raised many times today: the question of legal protections and the European convention on human rights. There has been much discussion about the powers of the European Court of Human Rights, but I believe that its case law is clear: the question of whether—and if so, how—to allow same-sex marriage must be left to individual states to decide for themselves.

“It is simply inconceivable that the Court would require a faith group to conduct same-sex marriages in breach of its own doctrines.”

Those are not my words, but the words of the eminent QCs Lord Pannick, Baroness Kennedy and Lord Lester.

The belief that the Court would order the UK to require religious organisations to marry same-sex couples in contravention of their religious doctrine relies on a combination of three highly improbable conclusions. The first is that the Court would need to go against its own clear precedent that countries have wide discretion in the matter of same-sex marriage. The second is that the Court would need to decide that the interests of a same-sex couple who wanted a particular religious organisation to marry them outweighed the rights and beliefs of an entire faith and its congregation as a whole. The third is that the Court would need to discount the importance of article 9 of its own convention, which guarantees freedom of thought, conscience and religion. That would be rewriting the rules not just for one religious organisation in England and Wales, but for all religious organisations in all 47 states of the Council of Europe. I believe that such an outcome is inconceivable.

Our sexuality is fundamental to who we are. Surely the crux of the debate is the question of whether we accord equal rights, respect and esteem to people regardless of their sexuality.

My hon. Friend has made her point very powerfully. We need to ensure that, as a society, we treat people fairly. That is at the heart of what we are talking about today.

My right hon. Friend is making a powerful case for religious freedom. Did she observe the Church of England’s statement at the weekend that it was not realistic or likely that churches would be forced to conduct same-sex weddings?

I am glad that my hon. Friend was able to make that point, because I do not want anyone to leave the debate without the right information on which to base their voting decisions. She has underlined the importance of the facts.

I hope that Members will forgive me if I make a little more progress. As you have said, Mr. Speaker, there is a great deal of interest in participating in the debate.

Members also need to understand the wider consequences of the Bill. The introduction of equal marriage will not marginalise those who believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman—that is clearly a mainstream view—but neither will it continue to marginalise those who believe that marriage can, and should, also be between a man and a man or a woman and a woman. We will not allow one belief to exist at the expense of the other. No misguided sense of political correctness will be allowed to impinge on that. It would be deeply divisive if, in righting a wrong for some, we created a wrong for others.

No teacher will be required to promote or endorse views that go against their beliefs. No hospital chaplain or worker will have to believe in a new definition of marriage. No religious minister will have to conduct same-sex weddings. The changes that we are discussing will not affect anyone more than they are affected already by choosing to live in a society that values tolerance and respect among its citizens.

Can my right hon. Friend think of anything in the Bill that would harm or disadvantage any heterosexual person, be they of faith or not, in any way whatsoever?

No, I believe that strengthening marriage in the way we are talking about will be of benefit to all people in our society.

My right hon. Friend has made it clear that she would not introduce a Bill to this House if it in any way impinged on the religious freedom of Churches or ministers. If, during the passage of this Bill, attempts are made by Members—from all parts of this House, given that we have a free vote—to unpick those locks or find other ways to introduce same-sex marriage into the Churches, will she then withdraw her support for the Bill?

The Church of England itself has made clear the importance of keeping the protections that we have in place as they are, and I join my hon. Friend in saying that any manoeuvres such as he describes would be counter-productive.

One key issue that has been raised with me is how schools, particularly faith schools, will handle the curriculum in relation to this matter. I am inclined to support the Bill, but will the right hon. Lady say a little more on this issue? She mentioned teachers, but how will this be handled in the school curriculum, particularly in faith schools?

The hon. Gentleman is right to bring that out in more detail. He will, of course, have read the Education Secretary’s words on this, which were reported widely over the weekend. The point to make clearly to the House is that teachers would, of course, be expected to explain—and as professionals, they would—the law on marriage, but what we never would expect a teacher to do is promote something that ran contrary to their beliefs or their religious beliefs. That is an important point to make, and perhaps it clears up some of the misunderstandings in some of the literature that has been put around in respect of today’s debate.

I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend, who has taken a lot of interventions. She says that nobody will be forced to teach anything that goes against their conscience, but what will be the position for faith schools that wish to promote a particular Christian view, or indeed other faith view, of marriage? Will they continue to be allowed to do so? Will she guarantee that no teacher who actively does so will be sued or prosecuted?

My hon. Friend will know that clear provisions are already in place for faith groups and faith schools to be able to talk about their beliefs on issues such as marriage. As with many other areas, be they to do with divorce or with children being born outside marriage, teachers have to deal with the issues sensitively. That, of course, is the point he is getting at. Just to reiterate, we would expect teachers, as professionals, to explain these issues to the children they teach, but we would in no way require them to promote something that did not accord with their belief—their faith—and I think that is right.

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will conclude in order to give individuals the time to make their own contributions.

Despite all the discussion and debate, this Bill is about one thing—fairness. It is about giving those who want to get married the opportunity to do so, while protecting the rights of those who do not agree with same-sex marriage. Marriage is one of the most important institutions we have; it binds families and society together, and it is a building block that promotes stability. This Bill supports and cultivates marriage, and I commend it to the House.

I welcome the speech by the Minister for Women and Equalities and commend her on the manner in which she made it, while often under pressure. I also commend the considerable thoughtfulness and integrity with which she put her points today. I strongly support the approach she has taken, because today Parliament has the chance to support loving couples who want to get married. It has the chance to make some of the same-sex couples I have spoken to in the past few weeks very happy, as they may finally set a date for their wedding. I hope we will support the Bill today to give those couples the chance to wed, to be married and to have their relationship celebrated and valued by the state in the same way as everyone else’s.

During the passage of the Civil Partnership Bill in 2004, my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh) pointed out to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who is sitting next to the right hon. Lady, that that Bill would inevitably lead on to gay marriage. The hon. Gentleman replied:

“The hon. Gentleman is completely mistaken… I do not want same-sex relationships to ape marriage in any sense…because they are different. Although the two share similar elements, they do not have to be identical, so the legal provisions should be distinct.”—[Official Report, 12 October 2004; Vol. 425, c. 228.]

What has changed since then?

My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda has since celebrated his own civil partnership as a result of that Bill. I am sure that he would have happily invited the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), had he had the chance to do so.

Let me deal with how civil partnerships are different. Civil partnerships have been a hugely important step forward and Labour Members are proud that our Government introduced them some years ago, but it is right that we now take the additional step of introducing equal marriage across the country. Of course people have strong views on marriage—on their own marriage and on other people’s—and I understand that some in this House are strongly opposed to the Bill. I respect their views although I disagree with them. I hope that is the spirit in which this debate will take place today.

The right hon. Lady talks about equality, so why are Labour Members not arguing in favour of heterosexual couples being able to access civil partnerships?

That is a separate issue, on which there was no consultation. I am sure that there will be a debate on that in due course later in our consideration of the Bill, and I know that people have different views on it. I believe that the case for equal marriage is a very powerful one.

Is not the essential point that what was once the love that dared not speak its name will now have not only recognition in law, but equality before the law? Is that not something we should be proud of as a House?

My hon. Friend is completely right to say that this Parliament should have pride in giving people equal rights to be respected and to have their relationships celebrated in the same way.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the institution of marriage can only be strengthened if in future all citizens enjoy equality before the law and the ability to marry the person they love, regardless of their gender?

My hon. Friend is right. Couples who love each other should be able to get married, regardless of their gender and sexuality. We should enjoy that and we should celebrate that. We all love a good wedding: we pause when we walk by a church or a registry office and we smile at the couple coming out in a cloud of confetti, because we think it is a great thing that a couple want to get married and want to celebrate that.

Does the right hon. Lady agree that, in this wonderful, tolerant and free society we live in, real equality exists when we can celebrate our differences?

We should certainly celebrate the chance for people to get married. We should celebrate the fact that different couples want to get married—that is exactly what we should support. This is not just about the wedding; we love a wedding, but we also all love the idea of a long, stable marriage. We love the idea of a golden or diamond wedding anniversary, where the couple are still caring for each other, even though they are bickering over the biscuits. We also all clearly like a good party, too.

The right hon. Lady is asking us to accept her party’s bona fides in respecting religious freedom. Why did she fail to include views of traditional marriage as a protected characteristic in the Equality Act 2010, and fail to support my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh) on the same issue last week?

I do not think it is right for individual views within individual faiths to all be protected characteristics under the Equality Act. I do not think that is the appropriate way to go.

We all love the idea of a wedding, we all support the idea of a strong marriage and, clearly, we all like a good party. I notice that the Department’s impact assessment suggests that passing the Bill could lead to an extra £14 million being spent on celebrations, which is a lot of confetti and rubber chicken. I do not think that it will be quite enough to boost the economy and deliver plan B, but I guess the Chancellor needs all the help he can get.

Call us hopeless romantics or call it the triumph of hope over experience, but most of us think that when people love each other and want to make that long-term commitment, that is a wonderful thing. Why would we prevent a loving couple from getting married just because they are gay?

Does the right hon. Lady not agree that she is confusing marriage with weddings? They are different things.

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is so gloomy about the fun of a wedding, which most of us think is an enjoyable way of starting off a marriage. I hope that he celebrates golden wedding anniversaries, diamond wedding anniversaries and long-term marriage.

Does my right hon. Friend recognise that many of the people who argued strongly and passionately against civil partnerships just a few years ago have no argument with them now and recognise that they have been a success? Perhaps in a few years’ time, the argument will have moved on and we will all be able to recognise that equality in our country is a good thing.

My hon. Friend is right. Members of this House who opposed civil partnerships now strongly support them. Members of the House of Lords, including bishops, voted against civil partnerships when they were introduced, yet many in the Church now support blessings for civil partnerships. Attitudes have changed and it is right that they have. We should support that and support them as they change further.

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving way, but the facts paint a very different picture. Since same-sex marriages were introduced in Portugal, Spain and the Netherlands, the number of mixed-sex marriages has decreased considerably—indeed, by tens and tens of thousands—[Interruption.] The facts are clear. When they were introduced in Spain, 208,000 people were married in mixed-sex marriages, whereas last year 161,000 people were married in mixed-sex marriages, so the numbers are declining, not increasing. The introduction of this legislation could reduce the number of parties in which the right hon. Lady appears to be interested.

If the hon. Gentleman looks at the long-term trends in marriage across a series of different countries, including those that have same-sex marriage and those that do not, he will struggle to find a causal connection suggesting that the fact that some gay and lesbian couples can now get married means that heterosexual couples are all running from the church door or the registry office.

It is worth hearing why many gay and lesbian couples say they want to get married. One gay man told me:

“My parents have a really strong marriage—I’ve always seen how meaningful and important it is. We want the same thing—it’s hard to explain but its about the value of our relationship. I want my nieces and nephews to feel that Uncle Adam and Uncle James are getting married, just like their Mum and Dad.”

Another said,

“we want to have the same celebration and status as our parents and grandparents—it’s about being normal. I want to have children. But I believe children are brought up better in a married relationship.”

Someone else said,

“I asked the question, ‘Simon will you marry me’ he said yes. I said ‘Marry me’, not ‘would you like a civil partnership’”.

Civil partnerships have been a fantastic step forward, providing for the first time proper legal recognition for same-sex relationships, and they continue to be a great source of great joy and of security. It was right of Labour to introduce them in the face of deep controversy, but it is time to take the next step for equality and to allow gay and lesbian couples the chance to marry if they choose to.

Another person reminded me of the practical differences that some people face when they are in a civil partnership. They have to declare their sexuality every time they fill in a form for something such as a mortgage or insurance, as there is a different box for someone in a civil partnership than for someone who is married. Why should they have to? Another person said:

“Language does matter. Marriage is universally understood as a meaningful commitment. People might say that in time civil partnerships will mean exactly the same. We say: ‘why wait?’”

Why should they wait—they want to celebrate their relationship now—when they could get married?

I am delighted to support the debate and I will be voting for the Bill, partly because I have been overwhelmed by the number of young people in my constituency who got in touch with me to ask me to do so. Does my right hon. Friend agree that generational issues make up an element of the debate? Most of my constituents who support the Bill have been younger, whereas those who have been against it have been, let us say, in the later stage of life.

My hon. Friend is right. One poll showed that two thirds of people overall supported same-sex marriage, whereas 80% of those under 50 supported equal marriage. That shows the strong positive feeling on this subject.

There has been a lot of talk about equality and fairness from Members on both sides of the House. Would the right hon. Lady like to hazard a guess as to why the word “equal” has been taken out of the title of the Bill? Perhaps it is because it is not quite as equal as the Government first expected.

The hon. Gentleman obviously has some detail in mind. The fundamental principle behind the Bill is to support equal marriage, as it allows same-sex marriages to go ahead. It is right that the law should do that. I am sure that there will be debates in Committee about the precise detail.

Does my right hon. Friend, like me, hope that the House will approach this matter with a sense of atonement? As she will recognise, in the 1960s the men and women who attended those first Pride marches in Trafalgar square following Stonewall were beaten by the police while this House looked in the other direction. Will she pay tribute to the leaders of London councils— people such as my right hon. Friends the Members for Barking (Margaret Hodge) and for Dulwich and West Norwood (Dame Tessa Jowell), as well as former Members for Brent and for Tottenham—who stood in the face of clause 28 because they chose to make a book called “Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin” available in their libraries?

My right hon. Friend is right that there has been immense discrimination over many years, including recently. People who are gay, lesbian or bisexual have faced considerable prejudice, including violence. This House has a duty to stand up against violence and discrimination and to stand up for the interests of equality.

I want to make some progress, as I am conscious that many hon. Members want to speak and that the time restrictions are considerable. Once I have done so, I will allow the Government Members who are standing up to intervene. I know that somebody behind me wanted to intervene, too.

Parliament should not stop people getting married just because they have fallen in love with someone of the same sex, and we should not say that same-sex relationships are intrinsically worth less. I know that many Members have raised objections: they fear that their Church or faith will be forced to hold same-sex marriages when they do not believe in it; they believe that, by definition, marriage is between a man and a woman, as it has been through the centuries; they believe that at the heart of marriage is the biological procreation of children; or they fear that widening marriage will undermine other relationships, stability and society. I disagree with each of those four objections, but I know they are held strongly by people whose views I respect, so I will address each of them in turn.

The first is the fear that Churches will be expected to support same-sex marriage in future. It is clear that they will not have to. I thought that the Minister for Women and Equalities powerfully explained the safeguards in the Bill. We have a long tradition in Britain of respecting religious freedom, which is built into our law and traditions.

I will give way to the hon. Gentleman later, as I promised to do so to other Members first.

The number of clauses in the Bill that deal directly with religion is unusual and is reflected in the decision of all parties to hold free votes. Freedom of religion is rightly protected in the Bill, as the Minister set out. No Church or religious organisation can be required to conduct same-sex marriage, nor can an individual minister, and if a religious organisation or an individual minister refuses to hold same-sex marriages, that will not count as discrimination under the Equality Act 2010. The right hon. Lady set out in some detail her double, tripe, quadruple, even quintuple locks, and she has a padlock, Yale lock, bolt, chain and even burglar alarm as well. I hope, however, that she agrees that Churches should be able to change their mind to support same sex marriage in future if they want to, without unnecessary hurdles and barriers. The Church of England and the Church in Wales have additional hurdles built into the Bill which we need to scrutinise in Committee.

I should like to draw out the central issue, which is the understanding of marriage. The right hon. Lady will accept that the institution of marriage is not simply beholden to and owned by a particular view, whether it is the Church or secular, or whether people are gay, married, and so on. It is a social institution valued by all. Does she agree, for example, with the gay writer and blogger, Richard Waghorn, who says:

“The understanding of marriage as an institution that exists and is supported for the sake of strong families”

changes under the Bill

“to an understanding of marriage as merely the end-point of romance”?

I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is making. I will deal specifically with whether extending marriage in this way will have an impact on wider family life and the stability of society—it is a point with which I disagree—but I pay tribute to the important work that he has done to tackle homophobic bullying.

In 2004, I voted enthusiastically for the Civil Partnership Bill, whereas the right hon. Lady did not. I am sure that she had good reasons. That measure gave full equality in the eyes of the law for people in same-sex relationships. Were either of us homophobic for not going for full marriage at the time? What exactly has happened in the past nine years? Is not the problem that we need to address not a lack of equality in the law, but a lack of equality, in some people’s eyes, in society? Just changing the name of a ceremony will not address that.

I have addressed that point before. I have always strongly supported civil partnerships: I think that they were the right thing for the Labour Government to do at the time. However, I also think that attitudes have changed and moved on—it is good that they have done so—and it is the right time to introduce same-sex marriage.

I need to make progress, as other hon. Members wish to make a contribution. However, I shall give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham).

Something that I have detected in correspondence is a fear that, contrary to the assurances that we have been given, the Bill will, at a later date, be revisited and unpicked. What does my right hon. Friend think about that?

I think that freedom of religion—an issue about which many hon. Members have expressed concern—is built very strongly not just into the Bill, but into our traditions and our long-term political history. It is something that we have always valued and I suspect that Parliament will always want to defend it. There are further safeguards in article 9 of the European convention. I agree with the Minister for Women and Equalities that it is inconceivable that the European Court would tell a Church or faith group to hold same-sex weddings. Despite the fact that many countries across Europe, including Spain, Portugal and Belgium, already have same-sex marriages, there have been no successful challenges in the European courts, and the Minister is right that the European Court allows a wide margin of appreciation.

We will want to discuss in Committee the issues affecting, for example, the Church in Wales. If it decided to support gay marriage in future, that could be subject to a veto by the Lord Chancellor and would require a separate vote in both Houses of Parliament. I hope that that can be examined in Committee.

Religious freedom goes both ways. Churches that object should not be required to sign up to same-sex marriage, but nor they should be able to block everyone else doing so. Other people do want to sign up. Polling has found that a majority of people support same-sex marriage, and Quakers, Unitarians and Reform Jews all want to be able to celebrate same-sex marriages. The Government originally ruled that out, but we argued that religious marriages should be included if organisations want that. I welcome the Government’s change of heart. Let us be clear: no one group, organisation, faith or institution owns marriage. Religious organisations should not be required to hold same-sex weddings, but neither, in the spirit of freedom of religion, should they prevent other religious organisations or the state from doing so.

Other objections have been raised. Some people argue that marriage by definition has always—for hundreds and perhaps thousands of years—been between a man and a woman and should remain so. For some people, that is their faith, and under the Bill their faith can be respected, but that is no reason not to change the law. It is hardly surprising that for thousands of years same-sex couples were not allowed to marry—they were not even allowed to exist. Same sex was illegal, never mind same-sex marriage. Legal sex by definition was between a man and a woman—that, too, was the case for thousands of years—but no one says that we should turn the clock back.

We cannot hide discrimination simply by calling it a definition. Marriage has changed many times over the centuries—and thank goodness for that. For hundreds of years, women were treated as property in marriage, handed from their fathers to their husbands and denied rights of their own. Until the 1990s, women’s bodies were effectively treated as their husbands’ property. If a husband raped his wife, it was not even treated as a crime. Civil marriage was introduced over 170 years ago and was pretty radical at the time, but now, every year, 160,000 of us get married in a civil ceremony. Marriage has changed before, and it should change again.

Some people oppose same-sex marriage because they believe that marriage is by definition about the procreation of children. However, that is not true of civil marriage, and that has been the case for over a century. Many marriages are childless, and we do not prevent people who are too old or too sick to have children from getting married. We do not do fertility tests at the altar. Yes, in vast numbers of families, marriage is an important starting point for a loving family bringing up children, but gay couples bring up children too. As people live longer, the family commitments involved in marriage are much wider than bringing up children.

Most MPs will know the sadness but also the inspiration they have drawn from visiting a long-married couple where, for example, the wife is struggling to cope, struggling to remember the world around her and struggling to recognise even the husband with whom she has shared decades of her life, yet he carries on: cooking for her, washing her, getting her up, putting her to bed, talking to her even as she becomes a stranger in front of him. That is marriage. But I have also visited a gay man, who died some years ago after a long illness during which he was cared for every day at home, in hospital and eventually in a hospice, by his long-term gay partner. I do not see why that cannot be marriage too. The idea that the biology of procreation should deny same-sex couples the respect that comes with marriage is to ignore the full richness—the happiness but also the tragedies—of modern family life. For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health: that is marriage.

Finally, with those who argue that extending marriage to include same-sex couples will somehow weaken or undermine marriage and stability for everyone else, I profoundly disagree. Marriage has changed many times before and society has not collapsed. Other countries are doing this and their Churches and societies have not fallen apart. Spain—Catholic Spain—has had same-sex marriage since 2004. Denmark, Belgium, Canada, Norway, Portugal, Argentina and South Africa all celebrate same-sex marriage. Only last week France passed the first vote on the way to same-sex marriage. The President of the United States is in favour of equal marriage too.

If the same-sex couples who have told me of their love for each other are able to get married, that will not weaken marriage; it will strengthen it. It certainly will not make it any less likely that the heterosexual couple with kids who live next door to them will stay together. If marriage is to stay relevant, to stay important and to remain a crucial part of our family and social relationships, it also has to remain in tune with the values of every generation, and that means that it should keep up with rightly changing attitudes towards homosexuality. The truth is that gay and lesbian couples have been locked out of too much for too long.

Does the right hon. Lady accept that there is a kind of inevitability about what many of us are hoping will be decided here this evening? We discriminated against women, we discriminated against Catholics, we discriminated against people from ethnic minorities, but very gradually and not always completely but perceptibly, this House has passed legislation to remove such discrimination. Is not this evening yet another example and another opportunity to do so?

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is right that this is the next step on a journey, and it is the right one. We should not resist the values of the majority of people across the country who now support same-sex marriage.

We have discriminated for too long. Until the 1960s people were locked up or punished for loving someone of the same sex. Gay men were told by the Home Secretary even in the 1950s that they were a “plague” on this country. Lesbian women were forced to hide their relationships, and teenagers were bullied at school, with no protection. Until the early 1990s teachers were unable to tell the child of a same-sex couple that their family was okay, for fear that that would breach section 28. So much has changed, and in a short time, too.

Labour in government equalised the age of consent, ended the ban on LGBT people serving in our armed forces and made homophobia a hate crime—measures that were controversial at the time, yet now have widespread support. That is why I am pleased that the vast majority of Labour MPs have said that they will support the Bill today. We have come a long way, and with each step forward the sky has not fallen in, family life has not fallen apart, and the predictions that passionate opponents made at the time have not come true. Those opponents have for the most part changed their minds and moved on. I hope the same will be true again.

Would it not be appropriate on this day, when we are debating this subject, to bear in mind, among all those who were persecuted, Alan Turing, one of the most distinguished scientists of all, who committed suicide arising from the harassment that he suffered as a homosexual? He should be remembered, along with so many other people who were persecuted and disgraced simply because of their sexuality.

My hon. Friend is right. As a society we should feel deeply ashamed of what happened to Alan Turing, who was a hero of this country.

The right hon. Lady has taken an intervention from her hon. Friend. When will she take an intervention from the Government Benches?

May I say to the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) that I have taken interventions from many hon. Members on both sides? Given the number of people on the Government Benches who are desperate to speak in the debate, I am keen to allow them the opportunity to do so, even though they have strong disagreements with each other.

Often the opponents of previous measures have changed their minds and moved on. I hope the same will be true again. I hope that opponents today will look back in 10 years and be unable to remember what the fuss was about. Today, let us vote for people to be able to marry, for the sake of those couples who really want to wed; for the sake of the Quakers, the Unitarians and other religious organisations who want to celebrate same-sex marriage as part of our respect for freedom of faith; for the sake of equality, removing unfair discrimination and challenging prejudice; and for the sake of marriage, to keep it inclusive and in touch for the next generation. In marriage let us celebrate, not discriminate. Let us be on the right side of history. Let us vote for the Bill today.

Order. The Second Church Estates Commissioner, who has designated responsibilities in the House, will be subject to a 10-minute limit. Thereafter, a four-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches will apply.

I am confident that we are all created in the image of God, whether we be straight, gay, bisexual, or transsexual. We are all equally worthy in God’s sight and equally loved by God. I am also sure that we are and should be equally welcome at God’s table. But equalness does not always equate with being the same.

For centuries, civilisations have recognised the value and importance to society of having an enduring and exclusive union between one man and one woman, not least for the raising and nurturing of children. That relationship is called marriage. 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.

The Government clearly well appreciate the value of marriage. Indeed, one of the points about the Bill before the House today is that it makes no provision for heterosexual couples to enter into civil partnerships. Clearly, policy makers considered that allowing heterosexual couples to enter into civil partnerships would undermine the institution of marriage. So what this Bill will do is to end the concept of marriage as it has been understood by society in general and by almost all faith groups in particular for recorded time.

Each of us will have to decide how we vote on this matter, according to our consciences and on a free vote. I shall vote against the Bill. From the outset, Ministers have made it clear that they intend that the Bill will give protection and ensure that Churches that do not wish to perform same-sex marriages are not forced to do so. That is consistent with the legislation relating to civil partnerships, where it is for faith groups as a whole to decide to opt into the legislation to allow civil partnerships to be registered on their premises.

It may be helpful to the House if I, in my capacity as Second Church Estates Commissioner, make clear to the House the views of the Church of England on the provisions that the Government have included to safeguard religious freedoms. Let me make it clear that I entirely accept the Government’s good faith in this matter and am appreciative, as is the Bishop of Leicester, who convenes the bishops in the other place, and as are senior Church officials, of the attempts the Government have made. The Government rightly wish to ensure that every Church and denomination can reach its own conclusion on these matters and be shielded so far as possible from the risk of litigation.

The so-called quadruple locks are sensible and necessary. It was unfortunate a couple of months ago when the Government were talking in terms of “banning” the Church of England and the Church in Wales from doing anything, because that was a completely misleading account, and I am pleased to see that nothing of that kind now features in the Bill or in the Minister’s explanation. The simple point is that the Church of England and the Church in Wales have not wanted anything different in substance from all other Churches and faiths—namely, to be left entirely free to determine their own doctrine and practice in relation to marriage.

Achieving that is slightly more complex in relation to the Church in Wales because, at disestablishment, it retained the common law duty to marry all parishioners. It is even more complicated in relation to the Church of England because as well as the common law duty, its canon law remains part of the law of the land and it also has its own devolved legislature which, with Parliament’s agreement, can amend Church legislation and Westminster legislation. So I am grateful to the Government for trying to get these matters right. By and large, I think they have done so.

I shall not give way because I am conscious that a large number of colleagues wish to speak in the debate and I do not wish to be selfish.

I should be grateful, however, if my right hon. Friend the Minister confirmed that clause 11(5) might still benefit from some further attention, given the need to avoid her having to act as the arbiter in relation to particular areas of the ecclesiastical common law. This is an area where time ran out in the discussions, and I hope that the Government will be open to some further drafting changes if they can be agreed during the passage of the Bill.

Before I leave the question of the locks, let me be clear that we think that the Government have done their best in these, given their intention to introduce same-sex marriage. But, as many other commentators have made clear, there is an inevitable degree of risk in all this, given that it would ultimately be for the courts, and in particular the Strasbourg court, to decide whether provisions in the legislation are compatible with the European convention on human rights. There is absolutely no doubt that once marriage is redefined in this very fundamental way, a number of new legal questions will arise and no one can be sure what the eventual outcome will be. The Government believe that this is a risk worth taking. The Church of England does not. As I understand it, the Roman Catholic Church does not, and nor do a number of other faith groups, including the Muslim faith.

The Bill has raised a number of extremely difficult second-order issues. Although the failure to consummate a marriage will still be a ground on which a heterosexual marriage can be voidable, the Bill provides that consummation is not to be a ground on which a marriage of a same-sex couple will be voidable. It also provides that adultery is to have its existing definition—namely, sexual intercourse with a person of the opposite sex. It therefore follows that divorce law for heterosexual couples will be fundamentally different from divorce law for same-sex couples, because for heterosexual couples the matrimonial offence of adultery will persist while there will be no similar matrimonial offence in relation to same-sex marriage. The fact that officials have been unable to apply these long-standing concepts to same-sex marriage is a further demonstration of just how problematic is the concept of same-sex marriage. Clearly, every right hon. and hon. Member will have to come to an individual judgment on these issues, in accordance with our own consciences, and the House will accordingly come to a collective judgment.

On the specific protections that the Government are seeking to give to Churches that do not wish to perform same-sex marriages, I believe that they are being done in the best of faith and as robustly as the Government feel able, but I simply reiterate that there is no way in which any of us can know just how robust these protections will be until they are tested in the courts. Notwithstanding the genuine efforts that the Government have made to protect Churches that do not wish to celebrate same-sex marriages, the Church of England cannot support the proposal to enable all couples, regardless of their gender, to have a civil marriage ceremony. Such a move will alter the intrinsic nature of marriage as the union of a man and a woman as enshrined in human institutions throughout history. Moreover, changing the nature of marriage for everyone will deliver no obvious legal gains given the rights already conferred by civil partnerships.

I am deeply saddened by the divisions and upset that this issue has caused to people on both sides of the argument. Sadly, in some quarters the divisions arise because the debate has been characterised as bigoted religion on the one hand versus equality on the other. Neither of those is true. True Christians are not bigoted, and this is not a matter of equality, no matter how often it is referred to as equal marriage. Some of the divisions arise from the campaign to steer people into thinking that marriage is simply about love and commitment. It could also be said that the Bill falls foul of Parliament’s convention of not legislating retrospectively, because changing the fundamental nature of marriage will affect existing marriages.

Under the law as it stands, as tested in the European Court of Human Rights, civil partnerships are equal to marriage. They might not have the same name, but they are equal. It has been argued that society views marriage and civil partnerships as being different and that same-sex couples feel that their relationship is not valued by society in the same way as is marriage. However, it is not even 10 years since civil partnerships were created, and already society has moved ahead in its appreciation of the commitment that those formal partnerships demonstrate.

As an atheist, I enjoyed the right to get married outside the Church. Surely those who do believe have a right to get married within their Church?

I will come to that in a moment.

Perhaps the parts of society that do not view civil partnerships as being exactly identical to marriage do so because a large proportion of society views marriage as being about the union of a man and a woman for the creation and care of children, and not simply about the love and commitment of the happy couple, as important as that is. On the other hand, civil partnerships are a celebration and recognition of the love and commitment that two people of the same gender have for each other.

The state has sought to treat marriage in a special way in recognition of its intrinsically child-centred nature. That is the only reason why the state has previously had any interest in marriage at all. If marriage were simply about love and commitment, we would first have to define love as being sexual love, because otherwise non-sexual relationships that are based on love and commitment would also have to be treated as marriage on the basis of the definition of equality. If the definition of marriage is simply love and commitment, why is the state interested at all? What business is it of the state’s to register and record such unions? It is because marriage is about so much more that the state has historically wanted to be involved.

Does my hon. Friend accept that the state has intervened in marriage for several reasons, one of which relates to property and has nothing to do with children?

I fully accept that the state has changed some aspects of marriage, but not its intrinsic, fundamental values.

The irony of the Bill is that it takes the current situation of equality of marriage and civil partnership and creates inequality. Under the terms of the Bill, there will be marriage in two forms—traditional marriage and same-sex marriage, which are neither the same nor equal. The Bill creates further inequality, with traditional marriages being allowed within some Churches and same-sex marriages not allowed. Same-sex couples will have the choice of civil partnership or marriage, whereas opposite-sex couples can have only traditional marriages—yet more inequality. The Bill is trying to engineer a cultural equivalence to tackle a perceived lack of equality in wider society. That does not sound to me like the basis of marriage.

The Government say that the Bill protects religious organisations, but there are conflicting legal opinions that robustly challenge that view. Moreover, there is absolutely nothing to stop a future Government legislating to allow, or indeed require, Churches to celebrate same-sex marriages. In fact, some commentators have said that they cannot wait until the Church of England and other faiths have to conduct same-sex marriages. Given that the Bill creates inequality, a legal challenge would surely be successful.

I am amazed that the Government should bring forward this Bill at a time when there are other pressing issues. Despite having gay friends and relatives, the issue of same-sex marriage has never once been brought to my attention; I have never had a constituent write to me asking me to raise it. I recall that many MPs were quick to praise the civil partnerships legislation as being everything that the gay community wanted—that it created the equality for which they had fought for so long. As we have heard, my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant)—I hope he is still my hon. Friend—has previously said that in his view the idea that the gay community would want marriage is nonsense.

Marriage is the union of a man and a woman that is open to the creation and care of children—not in all cases, but fundamentally that is its intrinsic value. This Bill will fundamentally change that. Despite all the issues that have been raised and the insults hurled by those on both sides of the argument, I will oppose the Bill. I believe that it creates inequality and that it does not tackle an existing inequality on the basis that the current legislation has been tested in the European Court and it has been shown that there is no inequality. I will oppose the Bill, and I urge any right hon. and hon. Members who are thinking of abstaining to vote against it.

It is a pleasure to follow such a wise speech by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello), and I will follow on from his main point.

This Bill does not create equality. It highlights the inequalities that will always exist, because the definition of marriage is based on the definition of sex. It is absolutely impossible to shoehorn same-sex marriage into the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 to provide equality. The gay lobby have said themselves in their campaigning that they have been looking for a Bill that will give them the same rights as heterosexual couples and enable them to enjoy faithful and committed relationships. This Bill in no way makes a requirement of faithfulness from same-sex couples; in fact, it does the opposite. In a heterosexual marriage, a couple can divorce on the grounds of adultery, and the legal requirement for adultery to have taken place is that someone has had sex with a member of the opposite sex.

In a heterosexual marriage, a couple vow to forsake all others. They are basically saying, in accordance with liturgy and the 1973 Act, “I will forsake all others because to you I will be faithful in honour of our vows and my faithfulness to us and our marriage.” A gay couple have no obligation to make that vow. They do not have to forsake all others because they cannot divorce on the grounds of adultery; there is no requirement of faithfulness. If there is no requirement of faithfulness, what is a marriage?

The Minister says that there is no requirement for consummation in a marriage. No, there is not, but a marriage is voidable without consummation. There is no requirement for consummation in the Bill because the definition of marriage and the definition of sex is for ordinary and complete sex to have taken place. Same-sex couples cannot meet this requirement. The Government have tucked this aspect right at the back of the Bill, possibly because they do not want it to be debated in Committee. That is sad, because it is part of the inequality. If I were part of a gay couple, I would feel like a poor relation as a result of this Bill. I would feel that it was a shoddy Bill in which gay couples are not as well considered as heterosexual couples. It highlights the inequalities.

Gosh, I am down to one minute left. I hope that the Minister will elucidate on one point. Mr Tatchell apparently said outside the gates of Downing street that the Prime Minister had been inspired by his words and that the Prime Minister used lines from his speech to promote the Bill. I admire Mr Tatchell—he is a brave man who says what he thinks and I respect his right to do that—but he also says that, on this issue, equality is not enough and that he is part of a movement of social revolutionaries who are out to turn society and the world upside down. Will the Minister please tell us that Mr Tatchell has not inspired this Bill and that it is not based on his words, and will she repudiate the overall intentions of Mr Tatchell and his lobby?

Today is a significant day for Britain as an equal nation. Today is about equality, but it is also about one of the fundamental principles that I think each of the political parties represented in this House recognises, namely that, basically, we should live and let live: we should let people get on with their own lives and give people who are gay the same basic rights that the rest of us enjoy.

I have received a tremendous amount of representations and the vast majority from those on both sides of the argument have been respectful and passionate and have reflected deeply-held views. I have had three meetings with objectors in Chesterfield to understand their objections and, if this Bill passes its Second Reading, I will have further meetings with them to understand the actual detail. As hon. Members will know, a Second Reading debate is about the central principles of a Bill. Some Members, such as the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries), say that the Bill has flaws, but if Government Members were to vote against every Bill because of an occasional flaw, the Government would never get anything past Second Reading. We need to understand that what we are talking about today are the principles, which are of central importance.

I recognise that some people—predominantly older members of society—are worried about the way the world is changing and the things that they are seeing. I am pleased that the Minister has confirmed that there is no compulsion on faith groups to do anything and that, while the Church of England will have the opportunity to opt in, it will not be forced to do something that it does not want to do. My right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) also made very well the point that marriage belongs to all of us, rather than simply to religious groups. I am also glad that the Minister has confirmed that there will be no requirement on teachers to promote gay marriage and that, in fact, as with civil partnerships, the Bill will make no difference to the questions they might be asked. That is important, because some of my constituents were concerned about it.

As a Christian, I see Christianity as a tremendously generous religion. As I have said previously, I think that Jesus Christ led the way on promoting equalities. There are any number of stories in the Bible that make it absolutely clear that Jesus stuck up for groups that had been oppressed over the years. As a Christian, I feel entirely comfortable voting in favour of this Bill. As someone who got married at the famous Crooked Spire church in Chesterfield, I do not think that my marriage will be besmirched or undermined in any way by the fact that gay people in the future might also be able to say that they are married.

Some of those who have written to me seem to believe that the argument is about whether heterosexuality or homosexuality is better. They seem to argue that, because gay marriage will be an option, some young people will suddenly decide that they are not straight anymore, but gay.

Absolutely. I have never said this in political terms before, but at the end of her life my mother was gay. It was difficult for me as a young man growing up in Sheffield to think that my friends might discover that. People do not deserve to live in that way, so this is fundamentally about mutual respect. I think that is why the majority of people, as polls have shown, ultimately support the proposal. They recognise that people are made differently and have a right to enjoy the same things as others.

Does my hon. Friend agree that there are many strands to the views of the religious community? One of my constituents contacted me to say:

“Our church have advised us to write to you opposing gay marriage. Forgive me if I don’t…Marriage is a matter of love, love is for all, not a select few.”

Indeed. That is an incredibly important point. This whole debate reminds me of a colleague on Chesterfield borough council who recalled that, when he told one of the older councillors that homosexuality had been legalised— thinking that he would be appalled—the response was that he did not mind it being legalised so long as it was not made compulsory. I think that many people in Britain will recognise those basic principles.

On the question of whether there was a manifesto commitment, I have read the Conservative party’s “A Contract for Equalities”, which makes it absolutely clear that the Government will consider gay marriage. When I debated the subject with the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham) this morning, she informed me that when she stood for election she was not aware that the Conservatives had a contract for equality. Perhaps that says something about how we need to start putting equalities at the top of the agenda. It is important, however, that the Conservative party had been talking about the issue.

Finally, today is a very important day and I think that in years to come we will look back on it with pride and say that we made the right decision. There is still time to discuss some of the detail and there will be an opportunity to scrutinise the Bill and for people to make further representations, but today is about saying that we recognise that there is a place for gay people in our society and that they have the right to enjoy the same respect for their relationships as the rest of us enjoy for ours. I hope that Members will support that.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Toby Perkins), who has articulated what many people of faith across our country have struggled with before coming to the conclusion that love should be for one and all and that marriage should not be an exclusive institution.

I declare an interest: I am a gay man who grew up in a rural part of our country in Cornwall and am from a working-class background. I grew up 20-odd years ago in an environment that made it hugely difficult for me to be open, honest and up-front with my family, friends and workmates about the choices I wanted to take in life and the people I wanted to see. That was unacceptable 20-odd years ago and it is unacceptable today, but it remains the case for many hundreds of thousands of people across our country.

I welcome this historic Bill, which I think will end a form of discrimination and, perhaps more crucially, send a signal that this House values everybody equally across our country. That signal will deeply affect people like me in the same way as I was affected 20 years ago, when I saw this House vote to equalise the age of consent. That was the first time I saw other gay people on a TV screen and it was the first time that I realised that I was not alone. It changed my life.

As we all take this historic step, we should remember that 70 years ago thousands of gay men and lesbian women were put to death in the concentration camps, 40 years ago thousands more were criminalised and had their lives ruined, and 30 years ago people were still being subjected to scientific torment in search of a cure. We have come a long way in a short time, but it is absolutely right that this House takes the next step and delivers full legal equality for lesbian, gay and bisexual people in our country.

I say to those hon. Members who will say, “Well, of course he would say that, because he’s a gay man,” my view is born of a hatred of discrimination and prejudice of all types, whether it be about gender, skin colour or religion. As a community, we should value diversity and treat everybody equally. Those values are enshrined in Cornwall’s motto, “One and All”. That is the community I grew up in and it is a community I am proud to represent—one that values community. The motto is not, “One and All, apart from if you’re black, Catholic or gay.” It is a community that distrusts the abuse of power. That is exactly why my right hon. Friend the Minister is right to have ensured that this House will not compel people or religious organisations to do anything that they choose not to do. We have struck the right balance between ensuring that there is equality and preserving religious freedom.

As a House, we must question those who wish to hoard privilege for themselves. We know that marriage is an important institution that delivers many benefits, including stability, health and happiness. If we recognise those benefits, why would we keep them from some of our neighbours who seek to enjoy them and whose faith allows them to do so? We would not tolerate that level of discrimination in any other sphere of life and we should end it tonight in this one.

Equal marriage will not be the end of the struggle for gay equality, in the same way that delivering the franchise to women and ending apartheid were not the end of those battles. However, it will allow us to start asking the right questions and to answer the other problems, and it will send a clear signal that we value everybody equally.

I congratulate the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert) on his honest and open contribution to this debate.

I will give my personal view, which I know differs from the views of the vast majority of members of my party. I respect that difference.

For the first time in history, a Government have proposed a Bill that will change the very nature of marriage in law. Until now, society and the Church have had a shared view of the essential purpose of marriage. It is primarily an institution that supports the bearing and raising of children in a committed and constant relationship. The traditional understanding of marriage has three basic elements: it is between a man and a woman, it is for life, and it is to the exclusion of all others.

Article 16 of the universal declaration of human rights describes the family as

“the natural and fundamental group unit of society”

and defines marriage as the union between a man and a woman. It states that the family is

“entitled to protection by society and the State.”

Those elements are designed not to exclude people or create inequality, but to promote the unique benefit of marriage in our society: it secures family environments and provides the essential qualities of safety and reliability for children.

Worryingly, the Bill rarely mentions children or parenthood. It emphasises the decision to take part in a ceremony more than the commitment to a lifelong relationship or having children. It is as if those elements are of no consequence.

The Bill proposes to change the definition and therefore the meaning of marriage in the interests of equality. The words “equality” and “fairness” have been used extensively by supporters of the Bill. I have concerns about the development of the Bill on those terms. The equality agenda has been narrowly limited to dogmatic principles of uniformity. Such language makes open debate and disagreement about the Bill look like prejudice.

The Bill promotes the erroneous notion that “uniformity” is a good definition of “equality”. Men and women do not have to be the same in order to be equal. Having the same experience does not make people more equal. We should be promoting equality, not uniformity, and be able to celebrate difference.

For a Bill to be driven by the word “equality” and then to promote inequality seems to demonstrate a spectacular failure. An example of that is the fact that a civil partnership is available only to same-sex couples. This is not a Bill that has equality at its heart. In honesty, it is a Bill that dilutes the meaning of marriage.

Holding a traditional view of marriage should not be seen as discriminatory. Unfortunately, the Bill has promoted that notion. It has not created tolerance, but has highlighted division. The Government cannot guarantee protection for Churches or individuals with a traditional view because they cannot predict or control what happens in the courts. What has happened to Catholic adoption agencies is a good example of that.

Moreover, the Bill no longer promotes exclusiveness. It does not consider adultery to be a violation of commitment and so it undermines the nature of marriage and the way in which marriage promotes predictable, long-term family environments for children. That is a worrying move for a Government to make. Are the supporters of the Bill really saying that marriage is good for society, while at the same time reducing the substance and value of marriage?

The Bill has many pitfalls. Changing the definition of an institution that has served society well is hasty and destructive. I cannot support such a move. I urge the Minister and the House to read the ResPublica green paper on marriage and British civic life that was launched yesterday evening and to think again.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Jim Dobbin), with whose speech I concur.

I had the privilege of chairing Committee proceedings on the Civil Partnership Bill. As has been said, very clear undertakings were given by the then Government and Opposition that that Bill was not the thin end of the wedge nor a paving Bill for same-sex marriage, but an end in itself to right considerable wrongs in the law. That it did, as the European Court of Human Rights has determined. In those respects, civil partnerships are indistinguishable from what we know as marriage.

When I put that point to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equalities, she said that no Government could bind another. Of course, she is correct. That kicks the bottom out of every undertaking that she has given. It is abundantly plain to most Conservative Members that the product of this Bill will end up before the courts and before the European Court of Human Rights, and that people of faith will find that faith trampled upon. That, to us, is intolerable.

I understand—I will give way to my right hon. Friend if she wishes to correct me—that the Cabinet paper on this matter was entitled “Redefining Marriage”. It is not possible to redefine marriage. Marriage is the union between a man and a woman. It has been that historically and it remains so. It is Alice in Wonderland territory—Orwellian almost—for any Government of any political persuasion to try to rewrite the lexicon. It will not do.

A way forward has been suggested, but it has been ignored. I do not subscribe to it myself, but I recognise the merit in the argument. The argument is that if the Government are serious about this measure, they should withdraw the Bill, abolish the Civil Partnership Act 2004, abolish civil marriage and create a civil union Bill that applies to all people, irrespective of their sexuality or relationship. That means that brothers and brothers, sisters and sisters and brothers and sisters would be included as well. That would be a way forward. This is not.

May I suggest very gently to the hon. Gentleman that what he has just suggested is profoundly offensive not only to a great many people in this country who are in civil partnerships, but to quite a few people on both sides of the House?

The argument is not mine, but that of an eminent lawyer in this House. Its merit is that it would create what I think the hon. Gentleman wants, which is equality. It would create a level playing field and it would leave marriage and faith to those who understand that marriage means faith and that marriage means the union between a man and a woman and nothing else.

The hon. Gentleman may seek to bat my argument away, but I promise him that in this House and outside it, there are very many people who share this view.

To conclude, I urge Members on both sides of the House not to abstain. If they support this measure, they should vote for it. If they are against it, they should vote against it, as I shall myself.

A man called Mr Proctor came to my surgery two weeks ago. He had never been to see an MP before, but said that he had never felt so strongly about an issue before. He wanted to know where I stood on the issue of redefining marriage. I said that given that he was calling it “redefining marriage”, I took the opposite view from him. He said, “Well, you’ve lost my vote.” I said that I felt as strongly as he did about this issue and that if it meant that people would vote against me at the general election, so be it.

Mr Proctor and I had a long discussion about the redefinition of marriage. I did not deny that it was a redefinition, because until now marriage has been possible only between a man and a woman. I explained that what I wanted to do was to widen access to an institution that has brought stability and happiness to many relationships.

Mr Proctor was a probation officer. He had seen lots of family breakdowns and their terrible consequences. He believed that the traditional husband and wife set-up was the best for bringing up children. He blamed absent fathers for the riots in London in 2011. I could not see how that linked to gay couples enjoying the same rights as heterosexual couples and bringing up children in a stable relationship. He believed deeply that a child—in an ideal world—needs both a mother and a father. I believe as deeply that a gay couple can bring up a child equally well.

We agreed to differ, but then Mr Proctor said, “What I’m bothered by is that people like me are regarded not as having a different point of view, but as bigots and homophobes. I am neither a bigot nor a homophobe. I have strong views about this and they are traditional views, but why does that suddenly make me completely beyond the pale?” We talked about equality and equal treatment and how we were not forcing people into same-sex relationships. He and I discussed the idea of equality for a while. “Equality for whom?” he asked. He felt not just excluded from my idea of equality, but criminalised by it. He wanted to know what would happen to people such as himself—people with traditional views.

I thought a long time about what Mr Proctor said—about the importance of not being zealots and bigots ourselves, but understanding the other point of view. We are, I hope, going to make a change that will make it legal for two men or two women to be married. Just as when we outlawed incitement to racial hatred we started a cultural shift in the way society thinks about race, so hopefully this legislation will do the same. But we want to take people with us, not leave them behind feeling that their views are neither heard nor understood. Living in a democracy means that the majority view generally prevails, but that makes it even more important to ensure that the minority view is considered and taken into account. I like and respect Mr Proctor, but I disagree with his point of view, and I look forward to voting for same-sex marriage this evening.

Marriage is one of the most important institutions in our society. It concerns many of us that it is in decline, yet while many move away from marriage, one group turns towards it. Gay couples are now asking to be admitted. Here we have a section of society who are saying that they want to declare commitment and that they value stability, in the sight of the public and perhaps of God. We defenders of marriage should be gratefully opening the doors, yet the reaction of some has been to slam them shut.

It is said that gay people should accept civil partnerships—and no more—which confer most of the legal rights of a marriage. Thousands of people such as me have cause to be grateful for the courage of hon. Members who voted for that change. Entering a civil partnership was the most important thing I have done in my life. At that time, civil partnerships were opposed by the Churches, a significant proportion of the public and many hon. Members. Just eight years later, only a small minority of the public oppose civil partnerships and many hon. Members who voted against the change now say they support it. People choose marriage for a reason: they know that it means something special. Indeed, it is because marriage is different that many are opposing the change, so we cannot say that civil partnerships are the same or dismiss the debate as being about a name. How many married couples would like to be told that they were barred from matrimony and able only to take out a civil partnership?

The Church of England and the Catholic Church object to gay marriage. I disagree with them, but their religious freedom is surely among the greatest prizes in our democracy. I would not vote for this Bill unless I believed that it protected religious freedom. No faith group should be compelled by law to conduct a gay marriage against its will, and none will be, but religious freedom cuts both ways. Why should the law prevent liberal Jews, Quakers or Unitarian Churches from conducting gay marriages, as they wish to? With the proper safeguards for faith groups and individuals to exercise their consciences and to disagree, I do not believe that there are sufficient grounds to oppose a measure that allows gay marriages for others. No one has to enter a gay marriage. No one’s Church has to conduct a gay marriage. We simply have to agree that someone else can enter a gay marriage.

Are the marriages of millions of straight people about to be threatened because a few thousand gay people are permitted to join? What will they say? “Darling, our marriage is over: Sir Elton John has just got engaged to David Furnish”? I appreciate the sincerity with which many people oppose equal marriage and the serious points made. Ensuring that religious freedom is protected is a proper concern, but some of the objections do not bear scrutiny. We are told that because there will not be a legal definition of “consummation”, there is some terrible flaw in the Bill, but many loving heterosexual marriages exist without consummation. Are they invalid? For some, the objection is to homosexual conduct itself. Today that is a minority view—one thankfully in decline.

My right hon. Friend says that that attitude is in decline, but does he agree that although achieving legal equality is critical, it is—and only ever will be—part of the battle for acceptance?

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend.

I believe that many who do not share that view nevertheless have a principled concern that gay marriage would mean redefining the institution for everyone, yet Parliament has repeatedly done that. If marriage had not been redefined in 1836, there would be no civil marriages. If it had not been redefined in 1949, under-16-year-olds would still be able to get married. If it had not been redefined in 1969, we would not have today’s divorce laws. All those changes were opposed.

I would like to praise the right hon. Gentleman’s advocacy of the cause of equal marriage—and give him a moment longer to speak. I agree with him that the definition of marriage is, in fact, what means most to us as individuals. I define marriage as being about a loving, long-term relationship. That is something to be celebrated and open to all in our society.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that this is an institution that should now be open to all.

When I was born, homosexual conduct was a crime. Not so long ago, it was possible to sack someone because they were gay. People did not dare to be open. Thank goodness so much has changed in my lifetime. That progress should be celebrated, but we should not believe that the journey is complete. I think of the gay children who are still bullied at school or who are fearful about whether their friends and families accept them. I think of sportsmen and women—vital role models—who still do not feel able to come out. The signal we send today about whether the law fully recognises the place of gay people in our society will really matter. Above all, I think of two people, faithful and loving, who simply want their commitment to be recognised, as it is for straight couples. That, in the end, is what this Bill is about.

Millions will be watching us today—not just gay people, but those who want to live in a society where people are treated equally and accepted for who they are. They will hear our words and remember our votes. I hope that, once again, this House will do the right thing.

May I say what a privilege it is to follow that excellent speech?

Given the time constraints, I will focus my comments on my perspective as a member of both the Anglican Church and the Ecclesiastical Committee of this and the other place. I entirely support the Government’s decision to make this a permissive law, allowing those religions and denominations that wish to celebrate the loving same-sex relationships of their members to do so. As the right hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) said, it would have been completely perverse to say to Quakers, the United Reformed Church or progressive synagogues, which wish to value and support their gay and lesbian members fully, that they would not be allowed to do so.

Indeed, there are many Anglicans and Roman Catholics who wish that their Churches were as open and welcoming as those that support the Bill entirely. In fact, all the opinion polls show that a majority not just of the public, but of Anglicans and Roman Catholics in this country support equal marriage. However, in their wisdom, the leaderships of the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church are not yet prepared to take such a step. That is their prerogative. It is perfectly possible to make the argument that, as a particular religion understands it, marriage can only be between a man and a woman. However the Churches’ credibility in arguing that would be a lot greater if they welcomed and celebrated civil partnerships. The fact that they do not do so leads me to conclude only that their objection to the Bill is not about the institution of marriage or even the word, but about a residual prejudice against same-sex relationships.

The Church of England has claimed, and repeated in the briefing provided for today’s debate, that because of its established status and the need for state law and canon law to be compatible, it requires an extra safeguard in the Bill that specifically does not allow same-sex weddings in the Church of England and Church in Wales—the so-called quadruple lock. When, however, in the presence of the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Members of this House and the other place asked the Bishop of Leicester, who speaks for the bishops in the other place, why the Church wanted that quadruple lock, he said

“we didn’t want it, hadn’t asked for it, and hadn’t been consulted.”

When the Minister responds to the debate, I would be grateful if she cleared up the confusion in Anglican circles on the issue of the quadruple lock. Were the Church of England to embrace same-sex marriage at some stage—as I and many in the Church hope it will—will the Minister confirm that there will be no need for more primary legislation or an amendment to primary legislation in this House, as has been stated?

I am not a constitutional expert, but having been in this House for 15-odd years I am not aware of any precedent whereby an outside institution can unilaterally decide to change primary legislation passed in this House. I therefore question the Church of England’s claim that were it to change its mind in future, it could do so just like that—easy, the Synod could get on and vote for it and we would not have to do anything. My fear is that it would be another long and convoluted process and that we would have to amend primary legislation. Will the Minister check once again whether the quadruple lock is necessary in law, and whether the Church is being completely upfront with its members about the hurdles in front of it?

I would also be grateful if the Minister explained what would happen in the case of a Church of England priest who wanted to marry members of their congregation in another church—a Quakers meeting house, for example, or a United Reform Church. Would that priest be banned from doing so under the proposed law?

Four minutes are not enough to lay out an argument about this matter, so let me set out some ground rules. I very much agree with the questions raised by the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw). If this Bill passes through Parliament and becomes law, it will not be the end of the world as we know it; a new Sodom and Gomorrah will not take hold of our island. Similarly, if it does not go through, it will not signal some resurgence of intolerance or inequality. No one will lose any rights to equal treatment and respect under the law and in the eyes of society.

No doubt some of our constituents who urge us to vote against the Bill do so out of an intolerance of same-sex relationships per se, or even homophobia. Likewise, some of those who urge us not to vote against the Bill, with charges of bigotry, closed-mindedness and religious zealotry, are equally guilty of intolerance and bigotry. I am sure that the vast majority, if not all Members of this House, are not homophobic, and neither are the vast majority who support the Bill bigots. Let us therefore have this important debate on the basis of respecting each other’s position, and hope that that rubs off—for once—on some of our over-zealous constituents and lobby groups.

Let us get away from the ridiculous mentality that too often pervades arguments on sensitive issues: that if someone is for some reason not in favour of a specific issue, they are against the whole cause—that if someone is not in favour of gay marriage, they must be homophobic or against equality. What nonsense! I feel immensely special and proud to be British, but that does not make me racist or guilty of regarding citizens of other races as inferior.

I supported the Civil Registration Act 2004. It should have been introduced earlier and it gave same-sex couples the same rights under the law and the tax system that I enjoy as a married person. I do not regard a couple’s civil partnership as inferior or unequal to my marriage; it is simply different. That Act was an end in itself; it achieved equality. I reread the debate and found no accusations against supporters of civil partnerships at the time that we were bigoted or homophobic because we were not legalising gay marriage and going all the way. What has happened between 2004 and now to make this Bill so urgent and pressing that it takes priority despite no manifesto commitment by any party, no coalition agreement, no Green Paper, no White Paper and no general campaign saying that we desperately need it?

As always, I am listening carefully to my hon. Friend. In so much as the Bill is an answer to any question, it may be an attempt to meet the perception that civil partnerships are somehow not enough. Given his argument, does my hon. Friend agree that the progressive outcome from what has so far been a hugely divisive process would be to meet that perception without redefining marriage and mortally offending so many of my—and I am sure his—constituents?

My hon. Friend makes a good point, which returns to a point raised earlier. This should be about equal respect. The real problem is not a lack of equality under the law but people’s perceptions of a lack of equality for those with different sexual persuasions. We must redouble our efforts to root out that lack of equality, but changing the nature and the word of a ceremony will not do it and we completely mislead ourselves if we think that it will.

Why are we here? Why has the Bill received such priority despite not having been in manifestos when there are other bigger priorities and inequalities? Why is it that women cannot become Members of the upper House because they cannot inherit a title? That is a big inequality. Why are we not putting through a law on the bigger inequality of forced marriage? Why has the Bill taken priority? The answer is because this is bad politics.

There are many reasons for opposing this Bill, only some of which are religious. Many of those reasons are secular. Atheist, I think, have a duty to protect the rights of those who, through many different deeply held faiths, will take a different view of this form of marriage. Many of the reasons not to support the Bill are based on poor, rushed drafting with a whole raft of “What nexts?” How much more will marriage be redefined? Many of those fears may turn out to be hollow, but on such a fundamental rewriting of an historical truth that has held that marriage is the union of one man and one woman, we are entitled to more security than quickly cobbled together, fangled quadruple locks that lawyers are already queuing up to unpick. Who are we, this Government of this country, to redefine the term marriage that has meant one man and one woman across cultures, ages, geographical boundaries since before state and religion themselves?

I do not claim that my church marriage is superior to another Member’s civil partnership. It is not; it is equal in the eyes of the law and society, just different. Let us get away from the basis that we need things to be the same to be equal. It is not the same thing.

I rise strongly to support this Bill as a practising Christian who now worships in the Church in Wales. I also rise, as I did the other day, with the greatest courtesy and respect for the sincerely and deeply held views and beliefs of fellow Christians and others who disagree with me on this matter. Although I disagree with the legal, political and theological arguments that have been made in opposition to the Bill, and cannot speak in detail today about why I believe such arguments are in error, at least we live in a society where such views can be courteously put forward and courteously opposed.

I am grateful for and proud of the steps that the previous Labour Government took towards establishing equality, and I also pay tribute to this Government for bravely introducing this Bill. I thank the Equalities Minister and her colleagues for the consideration that they and their officials have given to the Church in Wales, which as a disestablished Church with a legal duty to marry is uniquely placed.

Late last week I spoke to those in the office of the Archbishop of Wales and it was clear that they believed the Bill as currently drafted is much improved. In response, the Church has stated:

“The duty of Church in Wales ministers to marry will not be extended to same-sex couples. However…there is provision in the Bill for the law to be altered without the need for further primary legislation by Parliament.”

Although it is of great personal regret to me that my Church currently does not permit same-sex marriage, what is exemplified in that quote—as, indeed, it is in the rest of the Bill—is that it will not be forced to do so under the proposed legislation. There could not be a more respectful and appropriate compromise. Let me be clear: I will argue and pray for my Church to change its mind from within, but that is fundamentally a theological decision for my Church. The Bill is about not compulsion but permission—permission for the state to offer the legal institution of marriage to all those who request it, and permission for religious organisations to do the same should they so wish.

I spoke in detail last week about why I believe the Bill will provide ample protections for those whose earnestly and sincerely held beliefs will prevent them from wanting to take part in, conduct or otherwise engage in ceremonies of same-sex marriage, in addition to the extensive protections that people of religious belief are afforded by the Equality Act 2010. Hon. Members who remain concerned should test and secure assurances on that, but I believe there is no cause for fear.

All struggles for equality in human history are hugely different, but they have common characteristics. I do not wish to be crude or crass in making comparisons between debates on slavery, votes for women and other issues, nor do I imply that any Member of the House would have voted for slavery or against votes for women, but there are important historical parallels in the development of Christian and non-Christian views on those issues. With the greatest respect, I believe future generations will look back in deep confusion at some of the views expressed in this debate.

It is rare that you, Mr Deputy Speaker, will hear me quote an American southern Baptist minister. Pat Robertson is no proponent of same-sex marriage—indeed, he is a staunch opponent—but when questioned recently on why an America built with direct intent on Christian values had justified slavery, based in part on interpretations of biblical verse, and yet moved on to abolish it, he said:

“We have moved in our conception of the value of human beings until we realized slavery was terribly wrong.”

Slavery and same-sex marriage are different issues, but I hope the House today moves on in its conception, towards people of all sexualities. I also hope we move towards the state—and, I hope in time, more faiths—being able to open up the offer of the commitment signified by marriage.

One of my constituents wrote to me simply to ask:

“Please vote in favour of this Bill…so that my partner and I can get married.”

When I decide that I want to make a lifelong commitment of love to a partner, whether that be to a woman or to a man, I hope to get married in the traditions of my faith and in the presence of the God in whom I believe. I respectfully ask hon. Members this question: why should we, in all good conscience, deny my constituent, fellow hon. Members or any other person in this country a remarkable and worthy institution that is currently afforded to the majority but denied to a minority? We will not diminish marriage by allowing same-sex couples to marry, but strengthen it. I urge the House to vote in favour of the Bill.

We should indeed treat one another with tolerance and treat everybody’s sexuality with understanding, but the fundamental question we are deciding today is whether English law should declare for the first time that two people of the same sex can marry.

Parliament is sovereign—we can vote for what we want—but we must be very careful that law and reality do not conflict. In 1648, the Earl of Pembroke, in seeking to make the point that Parliament is sovereign, said that Parliament can do anything but make a man a woman or a woman a man. Of course, in 2004, we did exactly that with the Gender Recognition Act. We are now proposing to make equally stark changes to the essence of marriage. During the civil partnership debates, I was given solemn assurances on the Floor of the House, including by some sitting on the Opposition Benches now, that the Civil Partnership Act would not lead to full same-sex marriage.

Assurances from me do not necessarily determine what happens in Parliament in future. Several hon. Members have raised what I said in that debate. At that time, I believed that civil partnership was the be-all and end-all of the story. I have since entered a civil partnership and believe that the world has moved on. Many Conservative Members who voted against civil partnerships know that Britain’s mind has changed and want to reflect that in a change of the law.

The worry some of us have is that the world, in the hon. Gentleman’s mind, could move on again, and that many of the assurances we are being given may not count for very much.

In respect of Parliament being sovereign, it matters not what anybody says in any debate, because Parliament can trump it with a new law. On the point made by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant)—it is not the first time he has been wrong—I voted for civil partnerships expecting that to be the end of the story. We are now confronted with thousands of people in our country who are in, or want to enter, civil partnerships but would like to be married. That is what the Bill is about.

That is precisely what I want to talk about —the nature of marriage.

The catechism of the Roman Catholic Church beautifully describes the institution. Anybody of any faith or no faith who supports traditional marriage could echo these words. The catechism says that marriage is a “covenant” in which

“a man and a woman establish themselves in a partnership”

for “the whole of life”, and that marriage is

“by its nature ordered towards the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring.”

What does that tell us? I and many millions of our fellow citizens believe that marriage is, by its nature, a heterosexual union. We believe it is the bringing together of one man and one woman. It is not just a romantic attachment, which can exist between any two people, and nor is it just a sexual relationship. The act of marriage, by its very definition, requires two people of opposite sexes. If we take that basic requirement away, what we are left with is not marriage.

The Minister claims that marriage has always evolved. The Bill is not evolution, but revolution. It is true that I am blessed with six children. I realise that not every married couple is able to have the gift of children, and that some married couples may not want it, yet that does not change the fact that the concept of marriage has always been bestowed with a vision of procreation.

Every marriage has procreating potential in that marriage brings together biologically the two elements needed to generate a child. The very reason that marriage is underpinned with laws and customs is that children often result from it. They need protecting from the tendency of adults to want to break their ties and cast off their responsibilities. Marriage exists to keep the parents exclusively committed to each other, because, on average, that is the best and most stable environment for children. If marriage were solely about the relationship between two people, we would not bother to enshrine it in law, and nor would every culture, society and religion for thousands of years have invested it with so much importance. Marriage is about protecting the future.

Marriage is not about “me, me, me”, nor about legally validating “my rights” and “my relationships”; it is about a secure environment for creating and raising children, based on lifelong commitment and exclusivity. Marriage is also profoundly pro-woman—it is generally men who have the greater propensity to want to wander off into other relationships, when, in general, women are left holding the baby.

We must get away from the idea that every single thing in life can be forced through the merciless prism of equality. I am a Conservative. I believe we should be concerned with equality, but not at the expense of every other consideration—not at the expense of tradition. We should be in the business of protecting cherished institutions and our cultural heritage. Otherwise, what is a Conservative party for? Indeed, we are alienating people who have voted for us all their lives, and leaving them with no one to vote for.

I should add a comment from a lady who e-mailed me. She said:

“As a gay woman in a 24 year relationship, I commend you for your stand against the nonsense now being perpetrated by”

the Government.

“We have civil partnerships to give legal protections, I contracted one in 2006. I have been a Conservative voter for 50 years…and see this latest piece of nonsense as a final kick in the teeth for loyal Conservatives.”

I will vote tonight to proclaim my support for the future of our children and for the essence of traditional marriage.

All hon. Members have had many letters from constituents about the Bill. One I received came from a couple who first met in 1978 and have been in a loving and committed relationship ever since. They are accepted, welcomed and supported as a couple by their friends and family, and they have waited 35 years for the House finally to catch up with what they and their friends already knew: that their same-sex relationship is every bit as valid, important and equal as their straight friends’ relationships.

Over the period of that couple’s relationship, there have been huge changes in how society at large views them and other same-sex couples. I marched in protest 25 years ago when the House passed section 28—legislation that offensively characterised same-sex relationships as “pretend”. The fact that we have a quite different Bill before us today is testament to the power of politics to change minds and build a better society.

I condemned the Conservative Prime Minister who promoted section 28 all those years ago, but today I pay tribute to the Conservative Prime Minister who has provided leadership on this issue. The Bill is also a tribute to the legacy of campaigners such as Michael Cashman and Chris Smith, to numerous socially progressive campaigners in the community, to LGBT people who have suffered hatred and discrimination in their lives because of who they were born, and to the same-sex couples and individuals whose determination to secure equality was driven by the knowledge that the love they experienced in their relationships was no less than anyone else’s love.

The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful case against discrimination. Does he agree that one group still discriminated against is the trans community, and that one important outcome of the proposals is that they will make it possible for individuals to change their legal gender under the Gender Recognition Act 2004 without being forced first to end their marriage? That will be a great relief to many trans people in the community.

The hon. Lady makes an excellent point that I am happy to agree with. I hope that changes will be made in due course to reflect that.

The argument that extending marriage to same-sex couples in any way diminishes anyone else’s relationship is spurious. One person’s happiness does not diminish another person’s; rather, it adds to the total sum of human happiness, and surely that is to be welcomed. The measure strengthens rather than weakens marriage by extending it to more people. To those who do not like gay marriage, I say, “Don’t marry someone gay, but please don’t deny that right to loving and committed gay and lesbian couples.”

Equality is indivisible. One cannot be partially equal: either one is equal or one is not. The prize of the Bill will be to build a lasting political consensus in favour of equality. Today, the House must put itself on the right side of public opinion and on the right side of history by recognising in law at last that every person has the fundamental human right to love and to marry whomever they choose.

It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Croydon North (Steve Reed). I feel a certain distress about how the debate has been managed over the past six months and the pressure that has been put on so many of my colleagues by pressure groups and Churches who should have known better than to deploy such tactics. I feel that I have been living with a false sense of security after the legislative changes of the past decade. I am indebted to the Prime Minister not only for the Bill, but for the changes he has brought about within my party, which have led to my own election and that of many others and changed the face of the parliamentary party. As a result of the debate over the past six months, we may have gone two steps forward, but I fear we have also gone one step back. The modernisation of the Conservative party is not yet complete.

Has the hon. Lady, like me, been particularly angered and frustrated by the tactics of the campaign director of Coalition for Marriage, who has sent out e-mails urging people to write to their MPs saying:

“You will be remembered if you vote for this Bill. You will be held to account for it. We will tell your friends and family and we will not vote for you.”?

This is a free vote. Members should be voting with their conscience, as a free vote requires, not on the basis of threats to electoral prospects.

The hon. Lady makes the point far better than I could have done. The Coalition for Marriage and some Churches have deliberately and consistently misinterpreted the Government’s intentions by pretending that we were forcing Churches to marry same-sex couples. That was never the intention of the Government, and I and other colleagues would never have supported the Bill had it been so.

Belatedly, only this weekend, the Church of England has finally admitted that it is not realistic or likely that Churches will be forced to conduct same-sex weddings. It is so easy to say that now, when practically every person I meet who does not follow political deliberations in great detail has said to me about the Bill, “Oh, it’s about weddings in churches for gay people, isn’t it?” That is the misapprehension that many of my constituents who are opposed to the Bill have laboured under, including members of my own constituency association. I would like to put on record my appreciation of those individuals who have treated me with courtesy and respect such that I can, in conscience, support the Bill this evening without fear or favour. Many of them, however, believe that we are legislating for gay weddings in church. We are not. I am satisfied by the advice of the Attorney-General that that is an infinitesimal possibility. We have heard about how nobody can legislate against a challenge in the courts, but case law in the European Court of Human Rights makes it infinitesimally unlikely that any such challenge would succeed.

The hon. Lady is making a powerful speech. Does she agree that many European countries that are members of the Council of Europe have introduced same-sex marriage while at the same time protecting religious freedom, and that it is not beyond the wit of man or woman to do the same in our country?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right. In fact, there was a case from Austria in 2010, Schalk and Kopf, in which the European Court of Human Rights ruled that there was no obligation on any country, on any secular Government, to guarantee the rights of gay people to marry each other.

It has been argued that equality is not all that matters—that we are different and we should celebrate differences. I agree: we should celebrate cultural and other differences. However, having been different for most of my life, Mr Deputy Speaker, I can assure you that being treated equally is very welcome indeed. We still have some way to go, not just for gay people but in other areas too. My party should never flinch from the requirement to continue this progression; otherwise we may end up like the Republican party, which lost an election last year that it could have won were it not for its socially conservative agenda.

One last point that has not been raised is that gay people have always been allowed to marry—as long as they choose someone of the opposite sex. This has been the case in politics and in Hollywood for reasons that are well known. Many gay people today appreciate civil partnerships, but want more—they want the status of marriage. I am thinking particularly of younger gay people, who did not have to grow up in the environment that some of us had to grow up in. I support their right to declare their love in a state of marriage. I can assure hon. Members that this will not undermine tradition.

It is a great privilege to stand here today in the greatest seat of democracy in the world. I am honoured to be a part of this debate on the redefinition of marriage. The single biggest mailbag I have had in all my days as an MP, MLA and councillor has been on this issue. I listen to my constituents—not just one or two, but all of them. In this case, I listened to the 1,700 of my constituents who have contacted me to tell me clearly that they are opposed to any change and to the redefinition of marriage.

Two weeks ago, the Prime Minister walked into the House to great applause in relation to Europe. I was pleased as punch for him and what he is going to do with the referendum. He said he would be giving a commitment with all his heart and soul, and I am of the same mindset on this issue: with all my heart and with all my soul, I oppose the redefinition of marriage in this House and elsewhere.

More than 99% of my constituents who have contacted me have said that they do not want this. I have listened carefully to the argument that this is a matter of equal rights. That is not how I or my constituents view this matter. The introduction of civil partnerships, which enshrined legal and financial rights, ensured that people in civil partnerships had the same protection as a married couple. There is parity of rights here, so this is not a matter of equality of rights.

With great respect to the House and to everyone here, the sheer volume of those who are against this change cannot be ignored. Marriage is the union of one man and one woman. That has not changed for thousands of years. My constituents tell me they see no reason to redefine marriage, and I agree. We do not need to push through a measure that so many people believe will affect their ability to live out their Christian faith, but which does not give rights or correct wrongdoing. There is much potential for harm. This is not scaremongering; these are grounded and justified fears.

The proposed change in the law has the potential to bring inequality to anyone who disagrees with the redefinition of marriage, or who does not teach it, or who feels unable to promote or assist its promotion in their work. It will leave Churches vulnerable. On behalf of the Elim Church, the Baptists, the Presbyterians, the Brethren of the Church of Ireland or the Church of England, the Roman Catholics, the Methodists, the Muslims, the Sikhs, the Orthodox Jews—all those faiths who do not want a redefinition of marriage—I ask the Government not to ignore them, but to listen to what they and a few of us here are saying.

Does the hon. Gentleman share my puzzlement that this proposal was in nobody’s manifesto? Indeed, our own Prime Minister, only three days before the general election, said he would not be introducing it. None of us stood on a mandate to introduce this Bill.

I understand exactly how the hon. Lady feels. I would feel the same if I were a Tory.

The quadruple lock the Minister referred to makes worrying reading. There is no protection for public sector chaplains in the armed forces; NHS and university staff will be denied, for fear of losing their jobs, the freedom to express the opinion that marriage is between one man and one woman. Some 40,000 teachers have expressed the valid fear, backed up by legal opinion, that they will not be able to opt out of endorsing same-sex marriage and allow someone else to teach that aspect of the curriculum. There is something horribly wrong about a teacher losing their job for seeking to bow out gracefully of teaching that section by allowing someone else to step in. It is also wrong that parents have no protection enabling them to remove their children from classes in which they will be taught something that is expressly against their beliefs. When did we become a country that enforces ideals on people to the detriment of their personal faith? I do not believe that we are such a country, and I urge everyone today to ensure that we do not become it.

What about council registrars who feel unable to follow the new definition because it is contrary to their faith? The Minister has claimed that the quadruple lock will ensure that Europe cannot change. She and everyone else in this House knows that Europe decisions have been made in Europe that overturned legislation in this country. I have five examples, but I will give only one, because time is against me: Islington council sacked registrar Lillian Ladele for requesting an accommodation of her conscientious objection to same-sex civil partnership, and the European Court confirmed that a public authority could force employees to act against their beliefs on marriage and sack any who resist. That demonstrates that a quadruple lock and any other kind of lock will fall down when it comes to the European Court. Is there any other reason why the Minister believes that Europe will support us?

In December 2011, the Prime Minister stated that the UK is

“a Christian country and we should not be afraid to say so”.

Today, I urge the Government to put that statement into practice and show that we are not ashamed to live by the Christian principles of loving God, loving our neighbour and living by the word of God. Do not take away people’s right to do that and say it is for equality. It is not. Parity of rights is already secure. Instead, let people live their faith without fear of persecution, aided by this Government. I urge right hon. and hon. Members to oppose the Bill.

I am grateful for the tone of the debate so far, including from the Minister for Women and Equalities and the shadow Home Secretary, for the passion from people such as my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert) and for the call for tolerance from friends such as the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) and my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton). I share with someone whom I hope I may call my friend, the hon. Member for Croydon North (Steve Reed), whom I welcome here, and my hon. Friend the Member for Stourbridge (Margot James) the scars of past battles fighting against section 28, for example. It was not easy in the face of huge prejudice.

I come to this debate as the person I am, with the complexities I have as an evangelical Protestant by faith and a Liberal since my teens. So these are not easy issues for me, and they are not easy for many people here. I hope that we all understand the difficulty that colleagues and our constituents have in understanding the other side of the argument. Two of the strongest arguments made against the Bill are that none of us made an election manifesto promise to legislate for this and that this is a redefinition of marriage, the last being the point made by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon).

On the first point, it is true that it was not an election commitment, so I ask the Minister, the Government and Parliament to proceed slowly and carefully and to seek maximum consensus. Heavy programming and tight timetables will be the enemy of good legislation, and I hope that the Government will be sensitive to that.

Will the right hon. Gentleman therefore be voting against the timetable and carry-over motions this evening?

I will be voting against the timetable motion for just that reason, but I shall support the Bill. Edmund in “King Lear” said, “Stand up for bastards”. We need to stand up for gay people and their civil rights, but we also need to seek maximum consensus. A restrictive programme motion, therefore, would not be the right way forward.

I am pleased to hear about the right hon. Gentleman’s conversion. Will he take this opportunity to apologise to Peter Tatchell for the by-election in which he first entered the House?

I have apologised to him both publicly and privately. I was on a platform with him the other day, and he was very generous to me and supported me. We have worked together on many occasions. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that.

Other countries do these things much more easily than we do. In other countries, couples have a civil ceremony and then a faith ceremony. It would have been much better to start in that way, but it is too late to do that now, not least given the position of the established Church. I hope, therefore, that we will give the Bill a Second Reading today, but then work on the areas that, in my view, are not yet in a fit state to be enacted.

The Bill ought to be amended to make it clear that the principal purpose is to provide for equal civil marriage for gay and straight couples and for others to opt in if the Churches and other denominations so wish, but that is not how the Bill is drafted. The Bill ought to make it clearer that we are not seeking to redefine traditional marriage as previously understood in custom and law. That would be helpful to Church communities and others. I have talked to many in churches and elsewhere and I believe that there is a constructive will to improve the Bill, even among people who might not in the end support it. I imagine that a majority will vote to give the Bill a Second Reading, but we must disabuse people of the notion that it will place a prohibition on how people may speak and preach about these things and on what happens in schools. I am sure, however, that the Joint Committee on Human Rights, of which I am a member, will address that issue intensely and will be able to give guarantees to people who fear that the Bill will affect their rights to freedom of speech and freedom of belief.

I hope that we will address two other things. I supported civil partnerships. I think the Church was wrong to oppose them at the time, and I hope that it and other faith groups now understand that they would do themselves a service if they allowed services of blessing for people in civil partnerships. It would not be good, however, to provide for an easy transfer from civil partnership to civil marriage, which is what the Bill proposes. If we are to have civil marriage, there ought to be an obligation on everybody to have the ceremony of civil marriage, so that the full import is understood. I also do not understood why the Government are not making civil partnerships available for conventional male-female relationships as well as for gay people.

I hope that there will be changes. In an intervention, I asked the Minister to consider positively, both in Committee and before Report, constructive suggestions for change. Given the complexity of the Bill, we need tolerance and respect. On Saturday night, I watched the new film, “Lincoln”. Of course, as the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) said, there are no exact parallels between the battle over slavery and this, but there is a lesson: people then took different sides of an intense argument, even though they came from the same faith or other backgrounds, but things move on and we have to learn that understanding each other’s positions and seeking the maximum consensus is the best way to proceed. I hope that is how we will continue.

I, too, welcome the tenor of this debate, as Members clearly have different opinions about same-sex marriage, and the nuances of the various views held have been expressed well.

As someone who believes firmly in equality and human rights, I strongly defend people’s rights to express their views freely within the law, regardless of how repugnant I might find them or how strongly I might disagree with them. However, I would remind opponents of same-sex marriage of the much-quoted words of the late American politician Daniel Patrick Moynihan:

“Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts.”

Much of what we hear from the opponents of same-sex marriage is opinion masquerading as fact, so that they can then take the next logical step of insisting that their position should be imposed on everyone else.

Many hon. Members on both sides of the House would testify to the huge postbags—or large number of e-mails, to be more exact—we have all received on this subject from people on both sides of the argument. I particularly want to challenge two assertions that opponents like to pose as facts: that same-sex marriage is a redefinition of marriage; and that this is not about equality.

The definition of marriage has been changed by the state over time, so it is not correct to suggest that the concept of “marriage” has not changed. In fact, legislation around marriage has rightly changed over the years to keep up with public attitudes, from the beginning of real state involvement in marriage in the 1750s to the introduction of non-religious civil marriages in the 1830s, and from allowing married women to own property in the 1880s to outlawing rape within marriage in the 1990s.

The remarriage of divorcees is now allowed, and since the passing of the Gender Recognition Act 2004 it is now possible for a trans person to marry in their affirmed gender. On the other hand, religious marriage will continue to be a matter for religious organisations, not the state, to define—or redefine, for that matter. So this is about not redefining marriage, but extending it to a category of people who are already, de facto, eligible to enter into marriage as a result of the introduction and broad acceptance of civil partnerships. Surveys have shown that 80% of adults under the age of 50 in the UK now support same-sex marriage legislation, including three in five people who describe themselves as having a religious faith.

On equality, much progress has been made in fighting discrimination in the last few years. I am proud of the fact that Labour was in the driving seat for much of that, and I know from the current backlash against the Equality Act that progress is fragile. We need to keep up the momentum and same-sex marriage is an important next step in making progress.

Opponents of same-sex marriage have become adept at adopting the language and arguments of the equality agenda to justify diversity under the law in respect of allowing civil partnerships for homosexual couples and marriage for heterosexual couples. However, no matter how they try to dress it up, such a distinction is discriminatory. While the fact of discrimination provides a powerful case for this change, the growing public support I referred to earlier gives the best possible context for delivering it.

I do not share the view of some that marriage is so vital and important that we should support this move for that reason alone—

Throughout all the debates and controversies surrounding the same-sex marriage proposals, recognition of the purpose and values of marriage has been assumed rather than discussed. No real debate has taken place on the nature of marriage itself. Every e-mail and letter I have received in support of this Bill has mentioned the word “equal”. It is interesting to note that the Government have dropped that word from the title of the Bill. That is probably because it does not promote equality.

A Bill that keeps the traditional meaning of marriage for some sections of society, saying that marriage is between a man and a woman for the procreation of children, then gives others in society a different meaning of marriage, saying that marriage of same-sex couples is lawful, is not equal. The Bill also does not change the meaning of adultery: if a person in a same-sex marriage has an affair with someone from the opposite sex, that is deemed to be adultery; but if they have an affair with someone of the same sex, it is not classed as adultery and is therefore not grounds for divorce. How is that equal?

A Bill that takes away the meaning of the purpose of marriage, whose intention is traditionally child-centred, and tailors it to become a partnership model changes the basic building block of society and makes it adult-centred. How is that equal for children? Why does this Bill not offer civil partnerships for heterosexual couples as well as for same-sex couples, or civil marriage for same-sex couples, too?

Marriage is clearly both a foundational and a progressive institution; it is both traditional and radical. It secures well-being and manifest advantage for children born under its auspices, and stability for men and for women. However, traditional marriage is under threat, and has been for many years. The steady erosion of marriage over the last few decades is a grave social and economic ill. Why, then, does the state want to undermine it even further? With about 50% of children in our society being born out of wedlock, the state should be looking at ways to strengthen the institution of marriage for the sake of children, rather than eroding the true purpose of marriage even further. There is a plethora of evidence to suggest that the best platform to address poverty, acceptance, socialisation and a place in society for children is parental sacrifice and the love of the children of their union—the traditional family unit, sealed by traditional marriage.

Those who advocate the extension of marriage to same-sex couples have been very strong on the value of equality, but at the same time almost silent on the specific nature of the concept of marriage they want equal access to. Rather than erode the traditional meaning of marriage for the majority, there is a simple solution to address the problems arising from this Bill, which, as it currently stands, is incredibly divisive, rather than inclusive. The Government should take a serious look at opening up civil partnerships to heterosexual couples and simply change the name to something like “state marriage”. In that way, those who want marriage so that they can be called married, get their way and those who want to maintain traditional marriage for its true intended purpose can keep it. In that way, those who do not want a traditional option of marriage can have marriage under a civil partnership, or state marriage, where they currently cannot and those who believe the Churches should decide on who they want to marry can allow them to do so. Let the Churches decide, not the state, and let them do so without fearing reprisals.

In the meantime, I will not support this Bill, and I urge any of my colleagues who are undecided or wavering to do the same.

It is a huge privilege to be called to speak in this historic debate.

When I was a first-time candidate in the mid-1990s, I confess that I was concerned about plans at that time for lesbians and gay couples to be able to adopt. That was not because I believed that their parenting would be in any way inferior to that of straight couples—I did not, and do not, believe that. It was because I feared that the social climate at that time might have meant that many of the children would be subjected to serious bullying. Happily, today we live in a very different world. Some eight years have passed since the introduction of civil partnerships, and about two years have passed since the bar on religious ceremonies was removed. I believe it is time that we in this House have the courage to vote for equal marriage.

Let me explain my main reason for wanting to speak in this debate. As a straight woman of the Christian faith, I cannot believe it is right that I could be married in a church—and also that people of no faith whatever could be married in a church—yet believers who are lesbian and gay are shunned by the civil laws of the land on this issue, and even denominations that freely wish to marry them are barred from performing one of the most fundamental sacramental and pastoral duties. Do Members honestly believe that we should say to a Quaker couple whose meeting house wishes to perform a religious ceremony that they should be unable to have that, or that we should say the same to reformed or liberal Jews or to Unitarians? What about the United Reformed Church, which brought in religious ceremonies for civil partnerships last year? That Church was created from non-conformist traditions whose adherents were once barred from standing for office in this place and barred from our universities, and whose burial rites were not permitted in our parish churchyards. Do Members seriously believe that, in the 21st century, we should be denying religious freedom to those faith groups again?

There has been talk in the debate today of civil marriage and state marriage, and of how they should somehow be different from religious marriage. With the greatest respect, we are not talking about the ownership of the railways here. This is about something that many religious denominations wish to opt into. That is why the Bill specifically offers an opt-in. As we have heard, Catholic Spain has had equal marriage since 2005 without any challenges from the European Court of Human Rights. There have been more than 22,000 civil marriages in Spain—a country in which General Franco ruled supreme 50 years ago.

Churches the length and breadth of our land have not been challenged for re-marrying divorcees, for allowing members from outside their own fellowships to wed, or for placing any restrictions on who may receive the sacraments of communion or baptism. And let us not forget the case of Nadia Eweida, whose right to wear a cross at work was so shamefully denied by British Airways. She was supported by the ECHR in a judgment that quite rightly declared that manifesting religion was a fundamental right. I believe that this legislation is fundamentally about human equality and religious liberty. For heaven’s sake, let us support it today.

The level of interest in this subject, and the respect that has been shown by Members on both sides of the debate, are strong arguments for more free votes to take place in the House. I am delighted to see the manner in which the debate is being conducted today.

We have heard that this matter is not the highest priority facing the country at the moment, and I agree with that. We have also heard that the Government have no mandate for the legislation in their manifesto; that is also true. Although it is clear from many opinion polls that public opinion seems to support the measure, there is no settled public view on the matter. This is a new debate; it has not been conducted for long, either in the House or outside it. I believe that more time is needed for people to consider the ramifications of the proposal.

Too often, the argument on this issue outside the House has been polarised. Those in favour of same-sex marriage have sought to suggest that all those who oppose it are dinosaurs, while those who oppose it have said that its supporters would bring about the end of civilisation. Like my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), I do not think that either of those propositions is true. There has been a great deal of common ground in the contributions from both sides of the debate today, but the core question with which most Members are tussling is the balance between the rights of those who wish to enter a same-sex marriage and the threat to religious freedoms for others.

In June 1998, I voted in the House in favour of an equal age of consent. Only 13 other Conservative Members did so at the time. In 2003, I supported the introduction of civil partnerships, although I wanted the proposals to be wider and to include other cohabiting couples. Both those changes righted an injustice. This measure does not. It will not save anyone from prosecution for being what they are, and it will not prevent any unfair inheritance taxes from being applied.

I will vote against the measure tonight, not because I think that the world will end if it is passed but because I have serious misgivings about it. In spite of the Minister’s commendable efforts—which, as has been mentioned, have been recognised by the Church of England—it will be impossible to guarantee that religious freedom will not be compromised. Many Members have already raised instances in which people’s employment or their right of free expression could be compromised if the European Court were to rule in a certain way, or indeed if our own domestic laws were to be employed against them.

At the beginning of the debate, the question that was put to my right hon. Friend the Minister by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) was met by no guarantee. She could not give him a guarantee that people’s religious freedom would be protected, because it is impossible to guarantee that. The matter could be taken to the European Court. Indeed, if we pass this measure, it will be taken to the Court.

I want to set out misgivings about the Bill. I am not going to vote against it, because I do not object to its being scrutinised in Committee, but I expect to vote against it on Third Reading. My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) has spoken of the Church of England marriage service in some of his interventions on this topic. He has been right to do so, not on the basis that if the Church of England says something it must be true, but on the basis that the Church of England was the custodian of marriage in Britain for hundreds of years. For many people, it still is.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right.

The 1662 version of the Church of England service, which has been in use for the past 350 years, sets out three reasons for marriage. The first is that it was

“ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord”.

The central problem with the Bill is that it introduces a definition of marriage that includes the second and third reasons but drops that first one. The result is something that is a good deal weaker than the original.

My right hon. Friend was at my wedding. I was not young when I got married, and unless I had been blessed like Elizabeth, it was highly unlikely that I was going to be able to procreate after all that time. Is he telling me that my marriage is less valid than anybody else’s?

No, I am certainly not. I was delighted to attend my hon. Friend’s wedding. The reason that I have just cited was applicable 351 years ago as well, but the Church of England service still applies.

Children are at the heart of marriage but they are barely mentioned in the Bill. It aims to open up the benefits of marriage to people who are excluded from it at the moment, but it does so at the price of taking away a significant part of the meaning of marriage. Children are the reason that marriage has always been so important. If it was purely about a loving relationship between two people, as the Minister suggested earlier, it would have been much less important than it has actually been. Does that matter? Yes, it does, because it is right for society to recognise—as marriage does—the value to all of us of the contribution of those who bring children into the world and bring them up. That is the ideal that the current definition of marriage reflects, and it would be a mistake to lose the value that that definition places on the creation and bringing up of children. In the end, it will be children who will lose out if we do that.

I am following my right hon. Friend’s argument about the importance of marriage for children. Is he suggesting that children should be adopted only by couples who are married, or that children with same-sex parents have a lesser right to have loving parents who are married?

I am not saying either of those things; I am simply making the point that it remains the ideal for the two parents who together created a child to bring up that child.

Legal equality was delivered, quite rightly, by the introduction of civil partnerships, and if there are weaknesses in those arrangements, they should be put right. In particular, I see no problem with same-sex unions being celebrated in places of worship where congregations want to do so. A same-sex couple can have the same wish to affirm and to have affirmed a lifelong exclusive commitment as a man and a woman getting married, and we should value that and be willing to recognise and celebrate it. This Bill, however, affirms not that same-sex unions are equal with marriages, but rather that they are the same as marriages, when in reality they are not: they are different. I think we will be poorer if we adopt a watered-down definition of marriage based on two aims from the Church of England’s list instead of all three.

It is quite obvious from the tenor of this debate that this proposed legislation presents many problems for people both in this Chamber and beyond. Constituents and colleagues who are neither prejudiced nor homophobic genuinely believe that it is impossible to change the meaning of a marriage, which is what this Bill seeks to do.

People with deep religious beliefs see this attempt to change the law as an undermining of a fundamental institution. Now, by its very introduction, this Bill has undermined the perception of civil partnerships, which were so widely celebrated only a few years ago. I understand many younger people are not bothered by this Bill, but many older people do not understand this Government’s imperative to change the law in this area.

There may be a case for examining any legal disadvantages to same-sex couples and for strengthening any weaknesses in the civil partnerships legislation. This legislation, however, was not in our manifesto; it was not in the coalition agreement; and it was not in the Queen’s Speech. It should not have been introduced before a much fuller discussion had taken place—particularly, I believe, within my own party.

Does my right hon. Friend share my puzzlement at why the Prime Minister referred specifically to not introducing such a Bill only just before an election?

There have been many conflicting messages coming out of the Government, and my hon. Friend has just alluded to one of them.

At a meeting I attended in the House of Lords only a few weeks ago with the then putative Archbishop of Canterbury, one bishop told us that the Church had not been fully consulted. I believe that the Church should have been fully involved in all discussions on this matter. If the Government had sought to redefine civil partnerships or if they could really have ensured that the religious freedoms that they are promising would stick, more people would have been persuaded to support the legislation.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that some of us may find ourselves having to abstain, even though that is not exactly ideal, because that is the only way of making the point that although what we are debating has merit, a conclusive case has not been made? I would like to make it clear that, although I am not implacably opposed to change, I need to be convinced that it is necessary and has been properly thought through. When I hear of Government lawyers who are not even able to deal with the basic detail of the change to marriage under new laws, I really despair.

I am glad I allowed my hon. Friend to intervene, because I think she has spoken for many people on both sides of this House.

The Secretary of State is doing the impossible in this Bill in trying to change the meaning of the word “marriage”. As no Government are able to protect our religious freedoms, I am going to have a problem supporting this Bill tonight. The archbishop put it very simply in a television interview, when he said “There are issues”. I believe that the issues with this legislation cannot be resolved, so it is with great sadness that I shall vote against this Bill.

Having listened carefully to the representations I have received from constituents on both sides of the debate, I will vote for equal marriage today. I will do so because I am a Christian, not in spite of it. I believe marriage is important, and I believe it should be taken seriously—certainly more seriously than how it is presented in modern celebrity culture. I also think there are things that undermine marriage and strong relationships—the lack of family-friendly working hours and prohibitive child care costs are among them—but I genuinely cannot see how my support for equal marriage undermines my own marriage, the marriage of anyone else, or marriage as an institution. If anything, I believe it strengthens it.

I acknowledge that this is a difficult debate for some people. I understand that some Members have a different view from me, but I do not believe a case has been made to explain why the honour and privileges of marriage should not be extended to all. Some of the e-mails I have received have asked, “What protection will be offered to people who disagree?”, but this is a permissive law. It gives the right to conduct same-sex marriages only to organisations that wish to do so. I am genuinely not aware of anything from which people will need to be protected.

Another of my concerns relates to the role of teachers in Catholic schools in the event of this redefinition. I believe that the Education Secretary has provided adequate reassurance in that regard, but I hope we can all agree that what schools should be doing is working to tackle homophobia, and that that should be the starting point for the discussion of these issues in schools.

Some people have raised the prospect of “polymarriage” between three or more people if this change goes through. I find that objection quite offensive. Comments of that kind degrade the loving relationships of many of my constituents, and I feel that they make a poor contribution to the debate.

One of the things I find saddening is that in many of the objections I have received is an assumption that gay and lesbian people and Christians are two separate groups. When a petition was read out in my church on a Sunday several months ago, I could see how distressed gay members of the congregation felt. It is a matter of huge regret that some people—only some—have not acted more sensitively when addressing this matter.

While the overwhelming majority of the letters and e-mails that I have received have been extremely cordial, a number of them—not least some from people professing to want to uphold Christian values—have displayed a vitriol which I find extremely worrying. For instance, I have been told that my wife and I—my wife is chair of the governors at our local faith school—should not have married in a church if I am unwilling to vote against this measure. My response to that is extremely robust. If those people want to purge the various Churches of anyone who believes that faith is compatible with equal rights, they can do so, but they will kill the Churches if they do. There is no future in such a narrow, unwelcoming world view. We have reconciled many literal interpretations of scripture with modern life, and we can do so again on this occasion.

One of the more philosophical arguments that has been presented to me is that marriage belongs to the Church and not to the state. I do not believe that that is true either. We have revised and changed marriage through statute repeatedly over the last 100 years, and I believe that many of those changes strengthened marriage, notwithstanding the claims to the contrary that were made at the time. They include the introduction of register office weddings and weddings outside religious venues, and changes in the law on sexual violence within marriage. Many of those changes opened up the honour of marriage to a wider circle of people, and they should be commended for doing so.

Does not the way in which the Bill is drafted protect the Church’s view of marriage, and, indeed, protect those in the Church who hold that view strongly, enabling them to continue to hold it without fear of retribution?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. We have neighbouring constituents, and the representations that he has received are probably very similar to those that I have received. I think that we can reassure people, but also celebrate a change that is welcome.

I feel strongly that the majority of my constituents favour this change, but ultimately it is only on principle that any Member of Parliament can vote on the matter. It is my firm view that the change is right, that it promotes the cause of equality, that it will strengthen marriage, and that it deserves our respect and support today.

Last Saturday I went to the opening of an exhibition at M Shed, a museum in Bristol, entitled OutStories. It tells the stories of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people in Bristol over the last half century, and it begins with the story of Oliver, a 55-year-old partner in a firm of solicitors, who in 1963 was found guilty of gross indecency and sentenced to three months in prison or a fine of £40. It reveals all the trials and tribulations of that half-century, the ups and downs, and the way in which the experiences of gay people in Bristol have changed during that period.

Like all exhibitions, OutStories is not interested only in the abstract; it makes one think about one’s own place in history. For me that was rather easy, because I am mentioned in the exhibition as the first openly gay Member of Parliament to serve my city, and indeed the first on the Liberal Democrat Benches. I was born in 1966, when homosexuality was still without the law and a criminal offence. During my life we have seen much progress, but it has come in fits and starts and has not always been easy. Throughout my teenage years and my years at university, being openly gay was virtually impossible, because occasionally it could be a terrifying identity for an individual to have. I am thinking of the abuse that I received myself, and the far worse that I saw meted out to other people at school and university. What I say to colleagues on both sides of the House who oppose what we are trying to achieve today is please have some empathy with what your fellow citizens have been through. Equality is not something that can be delivered partially—equality is absolute.

Since 1994, when the age of consent was lowered to 18, we have had rapid change, and equal marriage is the last remaining significant building block in order for us to have genuine parity of esteem between same-sex couples and opposite-sex relationships.

Does my hon. Friend agree with the gay people who have approached me, who feel that the vows of commitment they are allowed to exchange in the civil partnership ceremony are not regarded with the same value as those in a marriage, and that is why they want this?

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. The introduction of civil partnerships was an important step and I would like them to be retained. I have plenty of opposite-sex friends who are not in a full marriage and would welcome civil partnerships being extended to opposite-sex couples. I hope that an amendment will be introduced in Committee or on Report to bring that about.

Today, we are legislating to allow same-sex couples to show their love and commitment before their friends and family, and to have it recognised by the state as a marriage and, possibly, celebrated within their religious faith. This Bill is permissive: it allows faiths to opt in to having same-sex weddings. I welcome the fact that the three Quaker meeting houses in my constituency, the Bristol progressive liberal synagogue in my constituency and our Unitarian chapel may be among the first in the country to take advantage of this change, and I hope they will be joined by others.

I wish that this debate was mainly about civil rights, but of course it has been characterised by discussion of the differences between religion and the state. Marriage is not the sole property of any faith or denomination; it has always been regulated by civic society, whether during the Reformation, with the various Acts of Uniformity concerning the liturgy and the Book of Common Prayer, or in respect of the rights of women in the 19th century. Indeed, the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857, which allowed women to divorce their husbands, was rather more radical at the time it was debated than what we are contemplating today. It was opposed by Gladstone, which shows that the wrestling with consciences that some leading figures in my party are doing today is nothing new.

Finally, I wish to touch on the politics of what we are doing. I wish to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone), whose position as a Home Office Minister did so much to bring this legislation to light. I also wish to thank hon. Members from all parties who are doing their bit today to do the right thing. Much of what we do in this Chamber ends up being the ephemera of history, but what we are doing today will be much more profound and will be remembered for a long time. It will bring genuine change in our country. What we do will be looked upon kindly by history.

It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams), who spoke powerfully from his own experience. I am going to vote for the Bill to be given its Second Reading tonight because I believe it is right to give all committed, loving partnerships the same legal status. However, the Bill bears all the hallmarks of a rushed job. The Government’s confusion about a marriage and a wedding is made clear in the explanatory notes, which state

“Marriage law in England and Wales is based on where the marriage ceremony takes place.”

Surely that is a complete misunderstanding of what marriage is all about.

I have two concerns that I hope will be addressed in Committee before the Government bring the Bill back for its Third Reading. I do not want us, inadvertently, to back the Church of England into disestablishment. The reason why the Church of England, unlike the other faiths, needs special mention is not to introduce a new hurdle, but to reflects its position as the established Church. Anyone and everyone who resides in a parish has the right to marry and be married in their parish church. Canon law, which embodies the teaching of the Church, is also part of the law of England. However regrettable some hon. Members feel this to be, the Church of England is not, in the foreseeable future, going to change its teaching on marriage, so this statute needs to reflect that position if the Church of England is not going to be subject to successful legal challenges. To put it another way, we need to balance people’s rights under articles 12 and 14 in the European convention of human rights to marry and be free from discrimination against the equally important right under article 9 to freedom of religion. Consequently, it is vital that that part of the Bill is not weakened in Committee.

In another respect, I feel that the Bill does not go far enough. The Government say that they want to treat all marriages in the same way, but part 3 of schedule 4 exempts same-sex marriages from rules on consummation and adultery. In practice, I guess that consummation might not be a big problem. As for adultery, however, surely if sexual fidelity is central to heterosexual marriages it should be central to any and all marriages. Why is the Bill fixating on biological heterosexual intercourse? A similar issue arises in how the Bill sets out the rights of children born to lesbian mothers. Surely children born to lesbian mothers should have the same right to two parents as other children and the presumption should be that a married lesbian couple are both parents of the child if one of them has a baby. I hope that those Members who are on the Committee will consider that, as well as the rights of children adopted by gay married men.

Finally, the trans community is often overlooked. I welcome the provision that will not require those people to annul their marriages in order to have their gender reassigned.