House of Commons
Tuesday 5 February 2013
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business before Questions
London Local Authorities and Transport for London (No. 2) Bill [Lords] (By Order)
Consideration of Bill, as amended, opposed and deferred until Tuesday 12 February (Standing Order No. 20).
City of London (Various Powers) Bill [Lords] (By Order)
Second Reading opposed and deferred until Tuesday 12 February (Standing Order No. 20).
Humber Bridge Bill (By Order)
Second Reading opposed and deferred until Tuesday 12 February.(Standing Order No. 20).
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
1. What progress he has made on his review of the prison regime. 
We are reviewing what is called the incentives and earned privileges scheme to ensure the public can be confident that any privileges earned in prison are gained through hard work and good behaviour. We want this to be a comprehensive review and its findings will be available in due course. I can tell my hon. Friend that, for example, the situation whereby some prisoners have access to Sky subscription TV channels, which many of our constituents cannot afford, will not be allowed to continue.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on placing mentoring at the centre of prisoner rehabilitation. My constituent Mary Stephenson is running a scheme called “belief in change”, which is currently under threat from the withdrawal of EU funding. Would my hon. Friend meet me and Mary Stephenson to see whether there is anything we can do to help assist that project?
I am happy to meet my hon. Friend and his constituent. He will be pleased to learn that the system we have in mind for dealing with the rehabilitation of offenders will reward those who have good ideas—ideas that work—in driving down the reoffending rate. He is right that we want to see more mentoring, as we believe it is very effective. Many other things will be affected, too, and we look forward to hearing about them.
Last month, the Secretary of State announced the immediate closure of seven prisons. When will the replacement prison, referred to in the same statement, be constructed?
The hon. Gentleman knows that what we announced was to investigate the feasibility of a large prison. We also announced that we will build 1,200 places or thereabouts at prisons that already exist. We will look carefully at all proposals made to us for suitable sites for a large new prison. As the hon. Gentleman knows, one possibility is a site in north Wales, which councillors in his area are extremely keen that we consider carefully.
In widening the system’s capacity for delivering work, what progress has the Minister made with getting ONE3ONE Solutions on to the Government’s preferred supplier list?
My hon. Friend will know that we are very keen to look not just at direct contracts from Government work but at other work for ONE3ONE Solutions to pursue. We want to make sure, of course, that there is a balance to ensure that ONE3ONE Solutions is not closing out jobs that could be provided to British firms elsewhere. We will want to make sure that it has the maximum opportunities to pursue those jobs within prison that will help prisoners learn skills—both hard skills and soft skills—as this was an agenda that my hon. Friend was successful in pursuing as my predecessor.
Much was made in the Government’s announcement on the prison regime at the weekend of the ability of gay inmates to share cells. As far as I am aware, that is already not permitted, so will the Minister inform us how many gay inmates have been sharing cells with their partners, or is this further evidence of the announcement being designed to chase the headlines?
The point that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was making—frankly, I would be surprised if the hon. Lady disagreed with it—was that it is clearly not appropriate for someone to live in that form of domestic arrangement while in custody. It is important that prisons are safe, secure and decent, but it is equally important that their regimes are properly austere and that the public have confidence in the way in which people act while they are in prison.
I think the Minister makes my point for me: the Government do not know the figure, and this was clearly about the headlines. However, while the Secretary of State has been fretting over the weekend about the pocket money, the trainers and the overalls of inmates, he has failed to keep the most dangerous prisoners locked up. Indeterminate sentences help keep offenders inside until they are safe to release. The governor of Whatton prison, Lynn Saunders, told The Guardian:
“I think I am fairly liberal in my attitude—I haven’t come across anyone”
serving indeterminate sentences for public protection—
“in this prison who I didn’t think should have an IPP. Not one.”
Why did this Government abolish indeterminate sentences, putting the public’s safety at risk?
I think the hon. Lady knows very well that we have replaced IPP sentences with extended determinate sentences. We have also introduced a mandatory life sentence for a second very serious violent or sexual offence. Those are entirely sensible sentencing approaches. The position with IPPs had become a disorganised and chaotic one, which we could not allow to stand. I am afraid that that is another classic example of the last Government’s introducing a measures that they had not thought through properly.
I also think that the hon. Lady is entirely wrong to minimise the seriousness of the need to ensure that the regime in prison commands public confidence. If she believes that the public take no interest in what happens to prisoners while they are there and in the privileges to which they have access, I think she is wrong, and if she believes we should leave the position as it is, she should say so.
I do not know whether the Minister wants an Adjournment debate on the subject, but I am sorry to tell him that that answer was far too long. We need to speed up.
Probation Service (Low and Medium-risk Offenders)
2. What assessment his Department has made of the effect of his proposals for the probation service on low and medium-risk offenders. 
The proposals in our “Transforming justice” consultation paper are designed to deliver a criminal justice system that punishes offenders properly and helps them to get their lives back on track. We want providers of rehabilitation services to tackle the root causes of offending, and to ensure that they have the right package of support to help offenders to turn their lives around. We will announce further details of our proposals once we have considered the responses to the consultation.
Lower-risk, profitable components of the probation service are to be handed to the private sector. Yet again, the Government are simply putting public money into deep private pockets and bringing additional costs into the system. Given the year-by-year decline in reoffending, why are they intent on unleashing a potentially risky and certainly costly upheaval of the existing system, rather than investing to improve it?
The first point to make is that we do not think that what we propose will be more expensive than the current arrangements. Quite the reverse: we think that it will save the taxpayer money. The second point is that we intend to bring in good ideas from not just the private sector but the voluntary sector, so that we can start to drive down those all-important reoffending rates. The argument for opening up rehabilitation to other agencies, private and voluntary, was advanced by the last Labour Government during the passage of the Offender Management Act 2007: we are simply implementing their idea. However, I note that the hon. Gentleman was not persuaded on that occasion either.
Will my hon. Friend assure us that providers will be commissioned to tackle the root causes of reoffending, and that they will help offenders to turn their lives around by, for example, providing mentors and signposts to employment training opportunities, as well as mental health and anti-addiction services?
There are many reasons why someone might be leading a chaotic lifestyle, and if we really want to get to the bottom of reoffending and to turn lives around, we need to address them. My hon. Friend is right to focus on addiction, and he is also right to focus on employment. We know that one of the most effective ways of rehabilitating people is to get them into work, and that is certainly the sort of thing that we expect providers to do under the new system.
May I ask the Minister about community sentences? If an individual has not performed as he or she should, who will assess, against the usual criteria, whether there has been an actionable breach? Will it be an inexperienced privateer, or will it be a fully qualified probation officer—who, incidentally, will have had no previous contact with the individual concerned?
The straight answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is that a public sector probation officer will make the judgment on whether a breach should be subject to action. Those providing interventions will be obliged to supply information about what has happened, but the judgment will be made by the probation officer.
The hon. Gentleman ought to recognise that, in a great many cases, a large number of the interventions provided for those who have been sentenced under community orders are made by the voluntary sector. It is not true that probation officers currently do everything themselves, and the flow of information between them and those who do is generally very good.
3. What progress he has made on his plans for the probation service; and if he will make a statement. 
The Ministry of Justice recently published the consultation paper “Transforming Rehabilitation—a revolution in the way we manage offenders”, which sets out our plans for reforming the way in which offenders are rehabilitated in the community. The consultation closes on 22 February 2013, and we will announce further details of our proposals once we have considered the responses.
Under the Secretary of State’s proposals, services will be fragmented across a wide range of providers and will be rewarded through payment by results, which will prevent public sector probation trusts from competing for those services. So how will he ensure that the high levels of performance now provided by probation trusts in protecting the public and reducing reoffending will be maintained?
Let us be clear about why we are doing this: reoffending rates in this country have barely changed in 10 years, and it is not true to say that we are getting the kind of performance across the probation service that the hon. Lady suggests. There is good work being done in the probation service, in the voluntary sector and in the private sector, and my aim is to have a package of proposals that brings to bear the strengths of all three in reducing reoffending rates.
Why have the Government come up with the idea that the commissioning of probation services should be done by a national body, rather than a local or regional one, given that that undermines the way in which local bodies concerned with preventing crime can work together and the ability of local and regional voluntary sector organisations to take part?
There are two reasons. First, we do not believe that the expertise exists on a localised basis to procure payment by results in an ambitious way—the kind we are proposing. Secondly, many probation trust management teams are enthusiastic about being part of the contracted-out world themselves, so I hope and expect that we will see some of them forming partnerships and creating new bodies that will take the service forward.
Joint Committee on Human Rights
4. When he last met the Joint Committee on Human Rights; and if he will make a statement. 
I have not met the Joint Committee on Human Rights since I became Secretary of State for Justice. I was due to attend an evidence session before the Joint Committee on the Government’s human rights policy on 18 December 2012, but the meeting was postponed and will now take place on 12 February 2013.
I look forward to the Secretary of State’s visit. When we were debating the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, before he took over as Secretary of State, his Department gave a commitment to review legal aid, particularly in relation to immigration and asylum, a year later. The Committee is now addressing that issue in relation to unaccompanied minors. Will he look at the evidence being given, address that issue before he comes to meet the Committee and see whether we ought not to amend the legal aid arrangements so that vulnerable people with immigration or asylum issues get the proper legal support and advice they need?
I am very happy to give that commitment and to look at that issue before the evidence session, and I look forward to discussing these issues with my right hon. Friend and his colleagues.
It seems that the Government’s process on reviewing human rights legislation is, to put it kindly, somewhat slow, at a time when the practical implications are more urgent than ever, not least in relation to gay marriage, which we will debate later. Will the Secretary of State speed up the process, as everyone wants to see that?
As my hon. Friend knows, I feel strongly that we need to make changes to the human rights framework. Unfortunately, it is my belief that there is not a majority in this House for such changes, and it will therefore fall to a future majority Conservative Government to deliver them.
Criminal Proceedings: Delays
5. What recent assessment he has made of the level of delay in criminal proceedings involving vulnerable witnesses. 
We want the criminal justice system to move faster, and deliver justice sooner for vulnerable witnesses and victims. We are looking at how to tackle delays across the criminal justice system to improve efficiency.
I thank the Minister for that reply. Victims of child sexual exploitation, already traumatised by their horrific experience, face gruelling cross-examination in court, often by multiple defence lawyers, in the process of justice. Does she agree that justice for those vulnerable witnesses is not served by lengthy adjournments—I am glad that she does—and that having specialist training in tackling child sexual exploitation would help judges better to balance the needs of victims and the accused in court proceedings?
I fully understand and sympathise greatly with what the hon. Lady has said, and I agree with her that concerns can affect a witness’s willingness to participate in the criminal justice system. That is why the Ministry of Justice is embarking on a strategy to improve efficiency and the effectiveness of the system. That work will look at the entire process, from offence to completion of the case. I have recently written to her about a case in her constituency. I hope she has received that letter and I am happy to meet her to provide further reassurance.
Does the Minister agree that the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 provides the right special measures to support vulnerable and intimidated witnesses so that they can give the best evidence possible?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. I would also add that the special procedure measures that are now available in the form of pre-trial familiarisation visits, support from the witness service, separate entrances, exits and waiting areas, and access to a live link can help to reduce the stress and anxiety of going to court. We are considering what more we can do to improve support, including using new technology to change how evidence is given.
The Minister said in her recent interview with The Times that she believes that the new Victims Commissioner
“feels a wonderful opportunity…to see victims put at the heart of the justice system”.
Is that why the Victims Commissioner will do only 10 days a month and why, two months after the announcement, she still has not started? Is the Minister not guilty yet again of failing victims of crime?
The Victims Commissioner is a very able woman who is able to multitask, like many of us. We have had a number of meetings with her and she, like me, wants to put victims and vulnerable witnesses at the heart of the criminal justice system, where they belong. We are prioritising victims of serious crimes, victims who are persistently targeted and the most vulnerable victims so that they get the support and care they need.
Work Capability Assessment
6. What estimate he has made of the cost to his Department of appeals related to the work capability assessment. 
Some 103,000 appeals against decisions related to the work capability assessment were disposed of between April and September 2012. The estimated total associated cost was £23.5 million. In the previous financial year, 189,000 appeals were made, at an estimated total cost of £45 million.
I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. As he knows from his previous responsibilities, many of those appeals were a result of incorrect initial decisions in a work capability assessment. Given that Department for Work and Pensions figures that I have obtained show that more than 35,000 people in the support group have to repeat the WCA, including people with cancer, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis and other progressive conditions, does the Secretary of State not accept that there would be less cost to his Department and therefore to the public if we stopped reassessing people who are not going to get better?
Of course, that is really a matter for the DWP. It is my job to provide an appeal route for those who wish to appeal, but the hon. Gentleman will be aware that before I left my previous job I asked officials to change how we reassessed people who had been through an appeal so that there was a more sensible length of time between appeal and reassessment.
Does the Secretary of State agree that it would be far more efficient throughout the entirety of government if the decisions that were made were right the first time? The work capability assessments have not delivered that since they were introduced by the previous Government. Will he talk to colleagues in the DWP to try to ensure that decision making is right first time in the interests of Government efficiency and of the people who undergo a lot of anxiety and worry as they go through the appeals process?
My hon. Friend will know that that was a matter of great concern to me in my previous job. None of us benefits from getting decisions wrong and a huge amount of effort has been put into getting them right. Of course, our Department must provide a route for appeals when they are necessary, but I can assure him that a huge amount of effort goes into trying to ensure that we get decisions right first time.
Magistrates’ Sentencing Powers
7. If he will consider increasing magistrates’ sentencing powers from a maximum of six months to a maximum of 12 months for the purpose of making greater use of magistrates’ courts. 
Hear, hear, hear, hear.
We are considering a number of ways to make the best use of magistrates’ courts, including the option of increasing magistrates’ sentencing powers. Our priority in the short term, however, is to extend supervision to short-sentenced prisoners to ensure they receive supervision on release to help them stop offending.
The hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) has clearly been undertaking work experience on a farmyard. We are grateful for his contribution.
Kettering is fortunate to have an excellent bench of magistrates and the whole nation should be grateful for the tremendous unpaid work carried out by 24,000 magistrates up and down the country. Is the Minister aware that £40 million could be saved in the criminal justice system were he to undertake this simple revision of magistrates’ powers? Justice would be better, cheaper, quicker and more local as a result.
I absolutely share my hon. Friend’s high regard for magistrates both in Kettering and around the country. They are indeed volunteers who do a very good job. I am aware of the Magistrates Association’s proposals and the costings and savings that have been suggested. Those proposals bear scrutiny, because there will be second-order effects such as potentially more people in prison and more defendants electing to have a Crown court trial. As I said, the main thing to do is to ensure that people do not reoffend, which is why we have concentrated on extending supervision to short-sentence offenders.
Does the Minister accept that that puts pressure on jury service? A constituent of mine—an elderly 69-year-old lady who is not ill but slightly infirm—has been asked to do her third stint of jury service, and she has to take three buses to get to court. Is there anything the Minister can do about pensioners who have been asked numerous times to do jury service, are not capable of doing it, and do not want to do it?
I am slightly confused about why the hon. Gentleman is asking that question in relation to magistrates courts, which do not have juries. As the question tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) might well have the effect of more cases being heard in Crown courts, there would be more demand for juries. Jurors such as the constituent of the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones) would be more in demand, so I am not entirely sure that his question is in accordance with the original question.
I declare an interest, as my wife is a magistrate. Occasionally, she comes home in tears of frustration, because she and her colleagues have not been given the powers to enable them to do the job in the way in which they wish to do it. Will my right hon. Friend seriously consider extending sentencing powers so that they can take some of the waiting and the queues out of justice in future?
I am happy to tell my hon. Friend that the queues, as he put it, in Crown courts in particular are coming down. We will consider the proposal from the Magistrates Association and others to increase the maximum sentencing length, but that has to be considered along with many other reforms that are needed to improve the process of justice throughout the criminal justice system.
I think that that sounded like a no to extending magistrates’ powers. In addition, a third of indictable offences of violence were dealt with by issuing cautions last year, rather than their coming to court. While the cautioning of violent and dangerous criminals is being dealt with outside court, minor offences are being sent to the Crown court. Does that not look incompetent, even by this Government’s standards? What does the Minister have against magistrates, and why is he treating them with contempt?
That is the most absurd interpretation of what I have just said—that I was considering the proposal originally made by my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone). May I tell the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter), given his way with the facts, that the use of cautions has come down considerably since the Government of whom he was a supporter were in power?
8. How he plans to ensure that the voluntary and charitable sectors play a full role in the rehabilitation of offenders. 
Retaining the expertise and dynamism of the voluntary and community sector within the justice system is central to our approach. We have already announced an extra £500,000 of grant funding to support voluntary sector organisations, helping them to compete for contracts. My team and I are meeting a large number of such bodies early in this process to ensure that they are as fully on board as possible.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his reply. His recent statement on transforming rehabilitation has the potential to be hugely positive for the voluntary sector, but it is crucial that charities can compete for contracts on a level playing field. What action have the Government taken to make sure that charities are not at a disadvantage when competing for contracts on a payment by results basis?
I would make two points to my hon. Friend. I absolutely agree with his premise but, first, the cash-flow element of the proposals that we have introduced will not be as tough as that for the Work programme. Part of the task is to pay for the requirements of the court, so the cash-flow situation will be rather different. Secondly, I am making sure that we really engage the social investment sector, which can play an important part in ensuring that voluntary sector organisations can compete on that level playing field and win on it.
The Secretary of State will know that we privatised and contracted out hospital cleaning, and that led to MRSA. We privatised and contracted out school meals, and that led to turkey twizzlers. Why does he think that in relation to the probation service—such an important service—privatising and contracting out will lead to a better end?
If I am not mistaken, the right hon. Gentleman was a Minister in the previous Government who introduced the legislation that makes these changes possible. The Opposition say one thing one day and another thing the next. The truth is that reoffending rates in this country have barely changed in a decade, despite extra money being spent, and I want to bring those rates down.
9. What plans he has for the modernisation of the prison estate. 
Our strategy for the prison estate is to replace accommodation that is old, inefficient or has limited long-term strategic value with cheaper modern capacity. We also have a rolling programme of maintenance that prioritises our investment across the prison estate.
Stafford prison was built in 1794 and is one of the most cost-effective in the estate. Last week the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), and I visited Stafford and heard from prisoners of the work done by Joanne Tomlinson on anxiety management and how it had transformed their lives. Does my hon. Friend agree that modernisation is more about what goes on inside prisons than about the bricks and mortar?
I certainly agree that what people do is just as important as where they do it, and I congratulate those involved in the work that he described at Stafford prison. However, very often what people do is despite the environment in which they are working, rather than because of it, and my hon. Friend will accept readily, I am sure, that where we can provide newer accommodation, it will make it easier for people to do the good work on rehabilitation that he and I both support.
Does the Minister agree that with 800 or 900 prisoners a year from north Wales going outside north Wales, there is a need for prison accommodation in north Wales, but that the debate that he is having now would be better served by more discussion, more plans and a meeting with Members of Parliament to see whether we can reach some consensus?
I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s support for a prison in north Wales. He might want to discuss the matter with his hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas), who may not necessarily agree with him. It would be wise for everyone to consider very carefully the proposals that will come forward for suitable sites. We will do that. We have identified north Wales as one of the places where there is a strategic need, so we will consider carefully any proposals that are made.
Prisoners: Drug Addiction
10. What recent estimate he has made of the proportion of prisoners (a) entering and (b) leaving prison with an addiction to a class A drug. 
A survey of 1,435 prisoners sentenced to between one month and four years in 2005 and 2006 showed that 45% of prisoners reported having taken a class A drug in the four weeks before custody. No recent estimate has been made of the proportion of prisoners leaving prison with an addiction to a class A drug.
I thank the Minister for that reply, but may I gently suggest that it would be worth while to have more recent estimates and to address the situation of offenders as they leave prisons? Has she ruled out suspicions of collusion by any prison staff in explaining why access to drugs in prisons is so widespread?
As I said, we do not have the figures on the number of prisoners leaving prison with an addiction to a class A drug, but this Government are absolutely committed to stopping drugs entering prisons and getting prisoners off drugs for good.
We cannot break the devastating cycle of drugs unless we deal with the issue of drugs in prisons. Why does not the Government adopt the recommendations of the Home Affairs Committee, which are simple: mandatory testing of prisoners when they enter the prisons, and mandatory testing when they come out of prisons? That will give her all the figures she needs in order to deal with this serious problem.
We feel that investing in comprehensive testing may not be the best way to tackle the problem, but the Government welcome the Home Affairs Committee report, “Drugs: Breaking the Cycle”, and we will of course give careful consideration to all the findings and recommendations.
The Minister will be aware that at Ford prison in my constituency the independent monitoring board has reported that 85% of the prison population is involved in the use of spice, a synthetic cannabinoid. I am not convinced that current orthodoxies in the Prison Service to combat drugs in our prisons are working: is she?
Our plans to transform rehabilitation will radically change the way in which we manage offenders, and they will also provide much more effective support for offenders on release. Fewer prisoners are testing positive for drugs than at any time since 1996. However, there is still much more to do, and that will involve our working very closely with the Department of Health and others to provide the best possible recovery services.
18. I am provoked by the very complacent answers that we have had. All the Government are offering is warm words on this. They say they have no recent evidence, but we all know from our own experience that not one single prison in the whole of Britain is free of illegal drugs. If the Government have no evidence of people going in as shoplifters and coming out as heroin addicts, the rest of society does have it. Should not the Government adopt a policy that is at least robust and realistic and look at the traffic between prison officers and prisoners on drugs? 
As I made clear, we are looking carefully at the excellent report by the Home Affairs Committee. However, we genuinely believe that our transforming rehabilitation plans will provide much better continuity of care and help to get prisoners off drugs in the long term.
11. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the legislation on squatting in residential premises introduced in 2012. 
The offence came into force only on 1 September 2012, but early indications are that it is being enforced, and reports suggest that it is deterring would-be squatters from occupying other people’s homes.
There are indications that as a result of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 squatters are increasingly targeting commercial properties. What plans does my right hon. Friend have to evaluate the size of the problem of squatting in commercial premises nationally and to take action to amend the law if necessary?
I can assure my hon. Friend that we are monitoring this closely, because it is possible that displacement squatting, as it were, is happening. We are in the early stages of collecting evidence. If he has specific examples from his own constituency of squatters occupying non-residential buildings, we will look at it very carefully, because squatting is a damaging offence.
12. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of alternatives to short-term prison sentences. 
14. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of alternatives to short-term prison sentences. 
The Ministry of Justice has published evaluations of the effectiveness of community orders and custodial sentences in reducing reoffending. Reoffending rates are still too high, and that is why we have set out plans to transform rehabilitation.
While there has been a very welcome fall in crime and antisocial behaviour, many victims still feel alienated by the justice system and its impenetrable sentencing guidelines. Will the Minister speed up the move to restorative justice so that victims can feel much more engaged and the community will benefit from the justice system?
My right hon. Friend makes a good point. We do want to mainstream restorative justice, and we are working hard with the Restorative Justice Council to make sure that we go forward in a controlled and sensible manner.
Government pilots show that restorative justice programmes have caused a 14% reduction in offending. What steps are the Government taking to roll out schemes more widely throughout the country? Will the Minister give a specific pledge to protect funding for projects such as the Sycamore Tree foundation at Haverigg prison in Cumbria?
There is a framework, and we are looking at capacity and quality. I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with full details.
Does the Minister agree, though, that we have far too many people in prison and that when they get to prison not enough is done to turn them into good citizens? Is there not plenty of evidence that effective treatment outside prison, in the community, works? Can we not improve those alternatives, because the probation service is crucial in helping to make them effective?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good and interesting point. Obviously, who goes to prison is a matter for the independent judiciary. Prison is absolutely the right place for some offenders, but I agree that for other offenders credible punitive community sentences can be a more appropriate disposal.
Has the Minister considered the effectiveness of short-term prison sentences for women, not only in reducing reoffending but the disruption and damage caused to dependent children by custodial sentences of a few weeks in prison?
Yes, I have considered that very carefully. Indeed, I have visited a number of facilities. I visited a wonderful facility in Gloucester a couple of weeks ago and will visit Alana House in Reading on Thursday to look at the exact issue that the hon. Gentleman has raised. Community sentences must, however, be credible as sentences and with the public. They cannot be fluffy options. They should have a punitive element and they should absolutely challenge the woman, or the man, to change her life. That is why the Crime and Courts Bill will require every community order to have a punitive element.
13. What plans he has for the provision of prison places. 
We will always ensure there are sufficient prison places for offenders sentenced to custody by the courts, and we will seek to do so increasingly in cheaper, more modern accommodation. We intend there to be at least as many adult male prison places at the end of this Parliament as there were at its start.
When considering any future extension of the prison estate, will my hon. Friend consider the Isle of Sheppey as a suitable location for that expansion?
We will consider all reasonable bids. My hon. Friend knows that we have looked, and are looking, into the feasibility of a new large prison. We have identified three parts of the country where we think there is a particularly strong case, but we will look carefully at any reasonable bids.
But of the Minister’s Department’s plans to resurrect Titan prisons, an Economist headline said, “You can’t keep a bad idea down”. Why the U-turn in Tory prisons policy after four years?
Do let us remember whose bad idea it was. We are not resurrecting it; we are talking about a prison that is economically viable and that will save the taxpayer money, but it may not and almost certainly will not be exactly what a Titan prison was. There are many ways of doing this. We could, for example, have a number of smaller institutions on one site and still achieve the same economies of scale. The hon. Gentleman should not believe that this Government will make the same mistakes as his made.
Prisoner Transfer Agreements
15. What progress his Department is making on the use of prisoner transfer agreements to allow the removal of foreign prisoners. 
We are working hard across Government to remove foreign national offenders from this country. Last year we removed more FNOs under prisoner transfer agreements than the year before. We recently made our first transfer under the European Union PTA and signed a compulsory PTA with Albania, which is the first time we have done so with a high-volume FNO country.
Have any agreements been reached with any countries recently?
They have. We signed the agreement with Albania earlier in January, which is very recently indeed. We hope that we will start making returns under that agreement very shortly. As I have said before, it is important that the agreements, wherever we can negotiate them, are compulsory prisoner transfer agreements so that prisoners do not have the choice about going back.
16. What his Department’s policy is on reform of judicial review. 
As set out in our recent engagement exercise “Judicial Review: proposals for reform”, our policy is to reduce the burden on public services of ill-founded judicial review applications, while protecting access to justice and the rule of law. We are working with the judiciary to ensure that we achieve that balance.
Has the Secretary of State not seen Liberty’s response to his consultation on judicial review, which finds no statistical or any other evidence that it impedes growth or stifles innovation? Why does the Secretary of State believe it is right to remove rights from local communities and vulnerable people in immigration cases just to find an excuse for why this economy has not grown in five of the past nine quarters?
The problem with judicial review is that it has mushroomed beyond any expectation. It started with a few hundred cases when it was first introduced and there are now more than 10,000 a year. Often, those judicial review processes are based on a public relations exercise or an attempt to derail the reform temporarily by using a technicality. Judicial review should be a genuine process to challenge the public authorities when they get it wrong; it should not be an excuse to fly a kite.
Employment and Support Allowance
17. If he will develop a feedback process to the Department for Work and Pensions on the reasons for the overturning of employment and support allowance decisions by tribunal judges. 
The provision of feedback on reasons for tribunals’ decisions is a matter for the judiciary. However, as the hon. Lady will remember, in my previous role we put in place new arrangements last year. Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service is now working with the DWP to evaluate the findings so that decision making can be improved wherever we can do so.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. However, his successor as employment Minister, the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr Hoban), told the Work and Pensions Committee that it was important to expand the reasons given by tribunals far beyond those on the dropdown menu, so that opaque statements such as “cogent oral evidence” are not given as the reason for an appeal being upheld. Will the Secretary of State confirm that those reasons will be expanded greatly?
Of course, the intention of the change was to identify relevant information that would improve decision making. We have learned quite a lot from the dropdown menu. The two Departments will of course discuss any improvements that will increase the quality of decision making and reduce the number of appeals.
T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. 
Since becoming Justice Secretary, I have embarked on a programme of delivering more for less and of boosting public confidence in the justice system. We are consulting on transforming rehabilitation and will shortly be considering reforms to youth justice.
In the past, my Department has routinely undertaken 12-week written consultations in some areas, including legal aid. I want to be clear that although the Government still want to hear the views of stakeholders and the public on many matters, they should no longer expect a 12-week consultation, even where that has been the practice in the past. Instead, in line with the new Cabinet Office principles, we will take a fresh look across all areas at whether, how and for how long we should consult, according to what is appropriate and proportionate in each case.
I was going to use this opportunity to follow up on my previous question, but since I got a good answer, I will not bother.
I think that the hon. Gentleman has created a precedent, but I do not know whether it will ever be followed.
I only wish that I had received a good answer from the Justice Secretary. He has been busy in recent weeks chasing headlines with general statements on everything from Titan prisons to spartan prisons, and from gay prisoners to smacking children. May I ask him about the specifics? I note that his junior Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright), could not answer earlier, but then he did not do the media appearances. When will the first Titan prison open, where will it be and how much will it cost?
We are not planning to build a Titan prison. We have a very good model for prison development in Oakwood, which opened recently in the west midlands. That site has multiple blocks and first-class training facilities. To my mind, it is an excellent model for the future of the Prison Service. We are looking at a number of sites and hope to reach a decision in the next few months on the best option. I would like to open a new generation prison as quickly as possible, because it will save the taxpayer money and the facilities will be better.
Four weeks ago, the Justice Secretary announced to the BBC, Sky and anyone else who would listen that he was going to open new super-mega Titan prisons in the near future and that he would undertake feasibility studies. Given his comments on Sunday, can he tell the House how many current prisoners are gay and are sharing a prison cell with another gay person?
I do not know how many people in prison are gay. I want to ensure that the regime in our prisons is appropriate, commands the confidence of the public and provides an appropriate environment for rehabilitation and training. We must have a prison system in which everyone can have confidence.
T3. An increasing number of international companies are looking to the UK for its legal services. That trade creates billions of pounds for our economy. Will the Minister tell the House what plans there are further to promote British legal services abroad? 
As my hon. Friend knows, our legal firms and educational establishments are great assets to this country. The Ministry of Justice continues to work very closely with UK Trade & Investment and the profession to promote those wonderful services overseas. I am sure that my hon. Friend would take great joy in looking at the Unlocking Disputes campaign, which is a good example of recent fruitful activity.
T4. The Teesside coroner takes almost twice as long as the national average to conclude inquests, causing further anguish to grieving families. This matter has been raised many times with the Ministry. Why on earth, given his failing and unprofessional service, is the coroner still in post? What steps will the Secretary of State take to remove him? 
I will not give a detailed response in the Chamber but I am happy to discuss the issue with the hon. Gentleman. I take seriously any concern about the effectiveness of the judiciary—which is, of course, independent—and I also take seriously my responsibilities as Lord Chancellor. I will look into the issue.
T8. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what steps he is taking to improve the youth detention system, and in particular to ensure that the great work done by secure children’s homes continues? 
As I indicated earlier, I intend to bring forward shortly a consultation paper on the youth estate. Our challenge at the moment is that across the youth estate we are detaining a small number of young people at a very high cost and with an unacceptably high reoffending rate—something like 70%. I want to see whether there is a better way of doing things to reduce that reoffending rate and help turn the lives of those children around.
T5. This morning I met Bill Waddington, chairman of the Criminal Law Solicitors Association. Despite what the Minister said in response to an earlier question, I was assured that there has been a sharp increase in cautions for serious offences, including sexual offences and violent assault. That is soft on criminals and harsh on victims. Will the Secretary of State meet me and Bill Waddington to discuss the issue? 
I take seriously the issue of cautions being administered for serious offences. Indeed, one of the first things I did as Justice Secretary was commission work on the issue, and I am due to meet senior police officers to discuss it in the next few days. I do, however, caution the House to be careful. For example, we would all view a caution for rape as completely unacceptable, but in some cases where the victim is absolutely unwilling to give evidence it may be the only way to get something on the record about an offender. We must be careful about this issue and try to get it right.
T10. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the potential to reduce reoffending by providing treatment in prisons for gambling addiction? 
We recognise that prisoners have a variety of causes for their offending and my hon. Friend is right to highlight one of them. We want to ensure that prisoners have access to the necessary schemes and interventions—both in prison and through the gate to the outside—to deal with whatever their issues may be. I will certainly look carefully at what my hon. Friend says about gambling and at whether more can be done.
T6. Just when MPs of all parties are seeing growing demand for housing, including as a consequence of the Government’s welfare and benefit changes, eight Shelter housing advice centres are scheduled to close. Those centres are lifelines to those in housing need, often at a time of crisis in their lives. Will the Secretary of State meet me and hon. Members from all political parties who are concerned about how to support those in housing need in their constituencies? 
We will always discuss concerns that Members of this House have about their constituencies, but Labour Members must understand that we are dealing with an unprecedented financial crisis. We inherited from them a situation in which this country was borrowing £1 for every £4 that it spent. That inevitably means tough decisions that they may not always like.
Magistrates courts in Swindon and Wiltshire are about to make important decisions about the allocation of crime and family work. Will my right hon. Friend work with me and those on local magistrates benches to ensure that very long journeys in order to access justice do not become the norm?
I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss that. Like me, I am sure that he will welcome the work done by the Courts Service to produce alternative ways in which people can give evidence—video links and so on—which mean that some unnecessary journeys and waiting times in courts can be removed.
T7. There are 500,000 victims of sexual offences but only 5,600 convictions. Why does the Secretary of State think that the number of sex offenders who are prosecuted is falling under the coalition Government? 
We take the whole issue of sexual offences very seriously, which is why one of the coalition commitments is to expand the availability of rape crisis centres. I visited the team running one such centre in Devon last week, and I pay tribute to them for their work. The Government will do everything they can to ensure that offenders and people who commit serious sexual offences are brought to trial. Any ideas that come through our rape crisis network of ways we could do that will be listened to.
I want to refer to the Justice Secretary’s proposals to reform the probation service. I have received a communication from the police and crime commissioner for Wiltshire who expresses grave concern about the degree of consultation prior to that announcement, and about the level of involvement and discretion that the commissioners will have in providing those services locally.
One thing we are doing before launching our policy is consulting on the broad direction of travel. That creates an opportunity for police and crime commissioners and others with an interest to take part. We are listening.
T9. Most people accept that there is a need for change in the motor accident claims sector, but is the Secretary of State satisfied that new plans to raise the small claims limit from £1,000 to £5,000 will ensure that accident victims continue to find adequate independent local advice and access to justice? 
I think the new plans will do that. Indeed, I think there is a case for saying that the small claims court limit of £5,000 is too low. I am keen for people to have access to a proper legal process, but the benefit of the small claims court is, in part, arbitration. The plans make the process simpler and cleaner for people who have been through a difficult time.
Last month in Bradford, Qamar Malik was one of the last people to be locked up on an indeterminate sentence for public protection. Malik is a dangerous, predatory paedophile who was convicted of kidnapping and sexual assaulting a six-year-old girl and of twice attempting to abduct a 12-year-old girl. Under his IPP, he will not be released until he is considered safe to be released, but under the Government’s new regime people such as Malik will be released whether or not they are safe to be released. How does that make my constituents any safer?
My hon. Friend knows how I hate to disagree with him, but he needs to recognise that we are replacing IPP sentences with measures that are just as tough and a lot more effective. The truth is that if someone is convicted of offences of a very serious nature, the judge has the option of passing the ultimate indeterminate sentence—a life sentence—if that is merited. We are therefore taking measures to protect the public. We are replacing an ineffective sentencing regime with a much more effective one.
As the Minister progresses his plans for probation services, what consultations has he had with the devolved Administration? When did he last meet the Justice Minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and were probation services on the agenda?
I last met the Northern Ireland Justice Minister about 10 days ago and am meeting him again tomorrow. No doubt probation services will be one thing we discuss.
Given the renewed threat that convicted terrorists will pose to society on release and the amount of security and intelligence resources that will have to be devoted to monitoring them, will the Minister confirm that the use of automatic early release would be entirely inappropriate for them?
Our expectation would be that people receive an extended determinate sentence for an offence of terrorism, under which release would not be automatic. I hope that reassures my hon. Friend.
Further to that question, the Minister recently confirmed in a written answer that 12 terrorists convicted under the Terrorism Act 2000 and the Terrorism Act 2006 will be released from prison this year. How does he intend to ensure that the probation trusts responsible for their supervision have the necessary additional resources?
The right hon. Gentleman knows that the arrangements made for offenders of that nature will be multi-agency public protection arrangements. We want to ensure that local authorities and all other agencies responsible for joining in under MAPPA have the support they need. We will look carefully at what he has said and ensure that that happens in each of those examples.
Magistrates courts play a key role in the administration of justice in the UK, but too often their operation can be deeply chaotic—it can be unclear when cases will be heard, cases start and stop, and it is hard to follow proceedings. Will the Department consider reorganising how magistrates courts work so we get efficient and clear administration of justice in them?
I am at one with my hon. Friend on that. I visit magistrates courts and was at Maidstone recently to see a very well run magistrates court—it is well run not least because the court officials and those feeding the court can use new technology, which, increasingly, will speed up the process.
I thank the Ministry of Justice for granting the appropriate licence to the university of Leicester to exhume the remains that have turned out to be those of Richard III. Will the Minister confirm that under the terms of the licence, it is up to the university to decide what to do with the remains and that the university has handed them to Leicester cathedral and that Richard III will be buried there?
How much does he owe in parking fines?
On behalf of the whole House, I congratulate all of those who have been involved. It is an historic occasion and an extraordinary piece of history. I hope everyone will come together for a proper service to mark the occasion, and for a formal internment in the cathedral.
We are not debating the question of whether Richard III incurred parking fines.
I have been in touch with the Youth Justice Board about the decision to change Ashfield young offenders institution into an adult prison. I am told that young offenders from the Bristol area will now be sent as far away as Feltham. I am concerned about their contact with their families, chances of rehabilitation and so on. What reassurance can the Minister give me that those facts will be taken into account?
The hon. Lady puts her finger on one of the great difficulties we have with the youth justice estate. As numbers drop, it is inevitable that we will need to re-roll capacity, and that could mean young offenders and their families being further away from home. However, we will do everything we can for each reallocated young person to ensure that they are as close to home as we can make it. She will recognise that not everybody at that young offenders institution comes from the Bristol area, so it may be that some will be nearer to home.
Several hon. Members
Order. I am immensely grateful to the Minister. I am sorry to disappoint colleagues, but Chris Ruane will have to have the last question.
You have not disappointed me, Mr Speaker. The prisons Minister misunderstood the position of my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) on the issue of a prison for north Wales. Will he meet north Wales MPs of all parties to discuss this important issue, in the interests of clarity?
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman is interested in clarity, because Government Members have been somewhat confused about what the Labour party in north Wales wants. Perhaps it would help if the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends were to meet their local councillors and decide what the Labour party in north Wales wants. We will then be happy to talk to them.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I seek your guidance on whether it is appropriate for a Minister to refuse to meet hon. Members to discuss important matters relating to their constituencies. It seems extraordinary that a Minister has refused three times to meet elected Members of Parliament, who should be given respect.
Even if something is extraordinary, that does not necessarily render it disorderly. It is not a matter for the Chair; it is a matter between the Minister and the Member. The hon. Gentleman has made his point. If the Minister wants briefly to respond, he can.
I am very grateful, Mr Speaker, because I want to ensure, in the interests of clarity, that the hon. Gentleman understands what I have just said: once he and his colleagues have worked out what it is they want, I am very happy to meet them.
I hope there is just a possibility of an outbreak of harmony, but as the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) is on his feet I somewhat doubt it.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Will you confirm that right hon. and hon. Members have only two privileges that are not available to every citizen in this country? One is freedom of speech in this Chamber, subject to your rulings, and the other is access to Ministers.
I am reluctant to enter into a debate on this matter. The first point is unarguable; the second is something about which I have just opined. I know that the right hon. Gentleman would not seek to lure me further, because that would be unfair and the right hon. Gentleman would never knowingly be unfair.
Building Regulations (External Retaining and Load-Bearing Walls)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Building Regulations (2010) to include regulation of external retaining and load-bearing walls; and for connected purposes.
On 26 July 2008, the lives of my constituents, Peter and Lindsay Burgess, were changed for ever. At the time, the Burgesses were living in Meliden, in Denbighshire, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), who is in his place. Mrs Burgess, accompanied by her three-year-old daughter Meg and 18-month-old son Wilson, had been for a walk to the local shop.
On the way home, while Mrs Burgess pushed Wilson in his pram, her daughter, Meg, followed a few steps behind. With no warning, a 72-foot-long section of wall collapsed, spilling tonnes of rubble, breeze-blocks and earth over the pavement and burying Meg. Mrs Burgess screamed, pulled at the rubble with her hands and tried to pull Meg out, but unfortunately Meg was declared dead 10 minutes after arriving at Glan Clwyd hospital in nearby Bodelwyddan. Tragically, Meg was crushed to death as a 5-feet 2-inch wall fell on top of her. The 72-foot-long wall was built of 9-inch breeze-blocks right next to the pavement, and fell pretty much in one piece under the weight of 26 tonnes of rubble piled up behind it.
This was not a typical garden wall; it was a large-scale engineering project, but the materials used to build it were not adequate for its purpose. The wall had not been properly anchored into the ground, no measures had been taken to protect pedestrians walking along the pavement, and it collapsed just moments after it had been backfilled. The builder, George Collier, was found guilty of manslaughter by gross negligence at Mold Crown court in October and was given a two-year jail sentence. Officially, justice has been done, but Meg should never have been killed in the first place, because the wall should have been built safely.
The pain and anguish that Mr and Mrs Burgess have dealt with these past four years are unimaginable to everyone in the Chamber, yet they have carried themselves with incredible dignity and strength, and now that they have achieved justice for Meg, they are determined that no one else should have to go through what they have been through. That is why they have set up Meg’s campaign, which seeks to license the domestic building trade in the UK and to bring free-standing, load-bearing and retaining walls within the scope of building regulations. Today’s motion seeks to address one part of Meg’s campaign, and I hope that it finds favour on both sides of the House.
Meg is not the only person to have been killed or injured by a collapsing wall. The exact numbers are difficult to quantify, but a written parliamentary question I asked last year revealed that, on average over 10 years, more than 1,000 injuries a year were caused by the collapse or partial collapse of exterior walls. Significant numbers of people are injured every year, yet changes to building regulations have not been forthcoming.
On behalf of Mr and Mrs Burgess, I would like to express gratitude to the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the right hon. Member for Bath (Mr Foster), for meeting us in December to discuss the intricacies of Meg’s campaign and to thank him for the promises he made and for his commitment to ensure that local authorities are fully aware of their current responsibilities in relation to dangerous structures.
Nevertheless, more needs to be done. As things stand, retaining and load-bearing walls are not covered by building regulations. There are centrally available guidelines about how a retaining wall should be built, but sadly they are not always adhered to. A Department for Communities and Local Government consultation document published in January 2012 revealed that more than 50% of small builders surveyed did not follow any form of official guidance for building walls.
The fact is, Mr Speaker, that you and I could go out this afternoon, watch a video on YouTube, erect a 5-foot wall and pile up tonnes of rubble behind it, and there would be no obligation on us to seek official guidance or consult experienced structural engineers and building control would not need to inspect our work. In Meg’s case, despite the builder’s 30 years of experience in the groundworking trade, he chose to cut corners and build a wall without the structural integrity required to retain the weight he planned to pile against it. Had the builder followed the guidelines, Meg would still be alive today.
That is the crux of the issue. Although the builder clearly did not follow construction guidelines, at no point did anyone check whether he had done so. Had retaining walls been included in building regulations, the property owner would have had to submit plans for the wall to the local authority for approval and to indicate its purpose as a retaining wall, the design would have had to incorporate the additional strengthening measures required for it to carry weight and the work would have had to be inspected before any earth was piled against it. Any building inspector would have instantly seen that the proposals for the wall were not up to scratch and that it would be unlikely to support its own weight, let alone the weight of rubble and earth piled up behind it. Any building inspector would have been able to see that the wall was not strong enough. No earth would have been piled up behind the wall, and Meg would still be alive today. Instead, Mr Collier thought he could get away with saving a few hundred pounds on materials, and a few hours of labour. As a result, a young child is dead.
This motion would enable a Bill to come before the House to bring retaining and load-bearing walls within building regulations. This is a simple, straightforward proposal for which other countries across the world have seen fit to legislate. In Australia, for example, any retaining wall over 1 metre in height requires development approval. They have also been legislated for in a number of US states, for instance in Colorado, where any retaining wall over 3 feet high requires a site plan to be submitted and a permit to be obtained from county planning departments. In the Republic of Ireland, planning permission is required for retaining walls over a certain height, depending on the local authority responsible.
Regulation of retaining walls is not without precedent in the UK either. Section 5 of the Hastings Borough Council Act 1988 states that
“no retaining wall shall be erected otherwise than in accordance with plans, sections and specifications approved by the Borough Council”.
Therefore, in the borough of Hastings—indeed, in the borough of Hastings alone—by Act of Parliament, anyone who wishes to erect a retaining wall over 1.5 metres in height must have their plans approved by the borough council.
Although I understand that local authorities may object on the grounds of increased work load, the Hastings Act shows how simple and straightforward it would be for them to administer such a proposal. I am totally supportive of the Government’s red tape challenge, but this is a potentially life-saving measure that could, and should, be adopted as soon as possible.
I am delighted by the huge number of hon. and right hon. Members who have chosen to pack this Chamber for this ten-minute rule Bill motion. I hope they will all join me in supporting the motion and in urging the Minister to consider carefully the merits of bringing retaining and load-bearing walls within the scope of building regulations. I commend this Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That Stephen Mosley, Chris Ruane, Chi Onwurah, John Stevenson, Stephen Metcalfe, Sarah Newton, Mr Alan Reid, Pamela Nash, Graham Stringer, Andrew Miller, Jim Dowd, Mike Weatherley present the Bill.
Stephen Mosley accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 1 March 2013 and to be printed (Bill 132).
Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill
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?
My hon. Friend makes his point very well.
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.
Several hon. Members
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.
Several hon. Members
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.
Several hon. Members
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?
None that I am aware of.
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.
Several hon. Members
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.
Several hon. Members
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 cannot say no to my hon. Friend, but then I must wind up my remarks.
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 shall give way to the hon. Gentleman, but then I want to make a little progress.
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.”
“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.
Several hon. Members
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.
Several hon. Members
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.
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
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.
On that point, will my right hon. Friend give way?
I give way, one final time, to my hon. Friend.
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.
Will the right hon. Lady give way?
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
I hope it is not a point of frustration from the hon. Gentleman.
The right hon. Lady has taken an intervention from her hon. Friend. When will she take an intervention from the Government Benches?
I note the point. It is not a point of order but the hon. Gentleman has put it on the record.
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.
Several hon. Members
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.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
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.
My hon. Friend is making a brilliant speech. Does he agree that this is about equal respect for everybody?
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