Consideration of Lords amendments
I draw the House’s attention to the fact that financial privilege is involved in Lords amendments 10, 11, 15, 16, 26, 27, 34, 54 and 55. If the House agrees to any of these amendments, I will cause an appropriate entry to be made in the Journal.
Marriage according to religious rites: no compulsion to solemnize etc
I beg to move, That this House agrees with Lords amendment 1.
The title of this Bill might be “Marriage”, but its fabric is about freedom and respect: freedom to marry regardless of sexuality or gender, but also freedom to believe that marriage should be of one man with one woman and not be marginalised. It provides clear affirmation that as a nation, respect for each and every person is paramount, regardless of age, religion, gender, ethnicity or sexuality.
Throughout this Bill we have listened closely to the issues raised with us, and I particularly thank the Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Hugh Robertson), and the Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), for the impressive way that they handled this Bill in Committee. The issues raised in Committee have been looked at thoroughly, and these further amendments will improve the Bill and strengthen its effectiveness. I also thank the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) and the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) for their constructive and considerate contributions.
Lords amendments 1 and 2 clarify the meaning of “compelled” in clause 2, which provides important protections to ensure that religious organisations and their representatives cannot be compelled to opt in to, or conduct marriages between same-sex couples.
If my hon. Friend will give me a moment to make a little more progress, then of course I will give way.
The amendments were tabled in response to questions asked in this House by my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) and those in the other place who were concerned that the protection from compulsion set out in clause 2 might be too narrow because the meaning of “compulsion” was not clear. We concluded that we could clarify the meaning of the word “compelled” in this context and make sure that in doing so we were not doing harm elsewhere. The sensible clarification that “compelled” means “compelled by any means” put the question beyond doubt, and it was warmly welcomed in the other place.
I am most grateful to the Minister for giving way. Perhaps she might add to her list of tributes my hon. Friends the Members for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) so that it does not just include Opposition Members who support her Bill but colleagues who have done considerable work in scrutinising it.
I thank my hon. Friend for making sure that we pay tribute to those on both sides of the debate, whether it be my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate or my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton). They have all played their part in making sure that we will have a strong piece of legislation that protects people who have deeply held religious beliefs and those who believe that it is absolutely right and fair that marriage should be open to same-sex couples.
The guiding principle of this Bill, from the start, has been the protection and promotion of religious freedoms, so we have made a number of other amendments to ensure that the religious protections that it contains are as strong, clear and effective as they can be. They include amendment 3 on the Jewish governing authorities, amendments 38, 39, 40, 48, 49 and 52 on void marriages, and amendment 51 on a change of personnel within a governing authority.
Some people are concerned about the effect of the Bill on the broader issue of freedom to express the belief that marriage should be only between a man and a woman—in particular, in relation to employment and schools. We want to ensure that that freedom of expression is protected, as, I am sure, would my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth). That has guided our thinking throughout the passage of the Bill. We have listened to these arguments and acted. Our amendment to the Public Order Act 1986, amendment 53, puts it beyond doubt that the discussion or criticism of marriage regarding the sex of the parties to it shall not be taken, of itself, to be threatening or intended to stir up hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation. The belief that marriage should be of one man with one woman is, of course, mainstream, legitimate and lawful, and it is explicitly recognised as such by the religious protections contained in the Bill. Whatever one’s view about the marriage of same-sex couples, it is legitimate and the Government will protect the right to express it. I hope that that provides the reassurance that several right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House have been looking for.
Extending marriage to same-sex couples changes nothing in respect of freedom of speech. That is why, in relation to other questions about the operation of the Equality Act 2010, particularly on the position of employees and teachers, we are clear that further changes to the law are not necessary and could indeed be harmful in casting doubt where none currently exists. For this reason, we believe that the best way to deliver clarity is through guidance to deal with the particular concerns that have been expressed, not by making specific provision in the law. We will therefore work with the Equality and Human Rights Commission to ensure that guidance will be available on how the Equality Act should be interpreted in the light of this Bill.
I am aware that there is considerable anxiety on the issue of teachers. I would like further to reassure hon. Members that, in the unlikely event that unforeseen consequences materialised, the Bill already contains ample powers to take action, particularly in paragraph 27 of schedule 4. These powers make it possible to disapply or modify, should circumstances require it, the default approach provided in clause 11 and schedule 3 whereby marriage has the same effect in law for same-sex couples as for opposite-sex couples.
I know that my hon. Friend raises that point for legitimate reasons: he wants to make sure that the House has clarification, and I respect that. I refer him back to the lengthy debate on this issue in Committee, where it was decided that further reassurance or clarification was not required and that, to avoid any scintilla of doubt, an amendment should be made to the Public Order Act to ensure that anyone who states that marriage is only between one man and one woman should not be taken as having criminal intent. We will achieve that through the Public Order Act, so we do not need to do so through the Equality Act.
I concur with the Minister on the Equality Act. Indeed, I referred to it a number of times in Committee and have done so in debates in the House. Is it not the case that the Equality Act balances protected characteristics, such as those of religious belief and sexuality?
The hon. Gentleman, who sat on the Committee, makes a strong point, but we have to recognise that people require reassurance. My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) has sought that reassurance and I hope he will join me in supporting the amendment to the Public Order Act so that there is absolute clarity for those who may remain concerned.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her detailed clarification on the issues of compulsion on the grounds of religion and with regard to teachers in particular, because they have formed the basis of most of the letters of objection that I have received from constituents. Now that those points have been clarified, people’s fears can be put to rest.
As always, my hon. Friend makes a powerful comment. I hope that she is right that this lays to rest those concerns. My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) said from a sedentary position that that was not the case, so perhaps I could give him an example of how we could use these provisions. Should problems arise in faith schools as a result of this Bill’s effect on section 304 of the Education Act 1996 or the guidance made under it, these provisions could be used to resolve them. I hope that that provides the further reassurance for which my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough is looking.
I appreciate the assurances being given by my right hon. Friend. She promised that the Government would consider whether any amendments or guidance were needed, particularly in relation to education. I appreciate that the other place has considered the issue, but am I right to understand that the Minister is now giving an undertaking that if there are any practical concerns on the ground about teachers promoting or endorsing same-sex marriage, she will consider the evidence and would then be willing to use her order-making powers under clause 11 to ensure proper clarity?
I do not think that my hon. Friend heard me right. I said that there are provisions in the Bill and the decision about whether they should be used will be made as and when any problems arise. My hon. Friend is right that any issues that arise can be dealt with under clause 11 and schedule 3 in particular. I hope that that provides him and other hon. Members with the sort of reassurance for which they are looking. I think that many of us, if not everyone, in this House understand the critical role that faith schools play in all our communities and I am sure that we all want to do everything we can to ensure that there is clarity and certainty so that they can continue to teach according to their faiths and beliefs.
I think that this is an appropriate point to address amendments (a) and (b) that my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) has tabled to Lords amendment—
I fear not, notwithstanding the good intentions of the Minister, on the grounds that those amendments are included in the second group. The Minister is ahead of herself. She should not be condemned for that, but I know that she would not wish to be disorderly. She may return to her previous position or stick to her last, if I may put it that way.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for that guidance. As always, you are extremely helpful. I would never want to be ahead of myself, particularly not when discussing this Bill.
The powers in paragraph 27 of schedule 4 are very specific. They are safeguarding powers to prevent the Bill from having a greater effect than is intended. I hope that hon. Members are able to look at that—
I do not wish to be unhelpful to the Minister, rather the contrary, but my strong impression, and I have guidance to confirm it, is that, having chosen the material that is the subject of the grouping, she is moving beyond that grouping and encroaching on other territory, which, in a parliamentary sense—the only sense in which I would ever accuse the right hon. Lady of this—is disorderly. I would not want her to be guilty of disorderly conduct, but in a parliamentary sense she is. She has strayed into it and she needs to get back to the group to which she was talking. If she has completed her consideration of the group, there is no obligation on her to continue her speech.
Order. The Members who are chuntering from a sedentary position with evident disapproval should know that the Minister is absolutely in order. Amendments 41 to 44 are within the group and it is perfectly proper for the Minister to treat of them. I am not sure whether the heckling was calculated or ironic, but it was wrong.
I think that we should turn the House’s attention to amendments 41 to 44 before we become more sidetracked.
The Bill introduces an important advance for trans people who wish for their marriages to continue after seeking gender recognition. We have made a number of amendments to achieve that. First, Lords amendments 41 and 44 introduce a fast-track procedure for those who transitioned a long time ago, but who have not sought legal gender change, so that they can remain in their marriage. Secondly, Lords amendments 42 and 43 make it clear that the consent of a trans person’s spouse is simply consent to staying married after the trans person’s gender recognition; it is not consent to their gender recognition and is therefore not a veto to it.
There are two further issues on which the Government have recognised the strength of feeling here and in the other place, and on which we have undertaken to establish a proper evidence base. Lords amendments 10, 15, 26 and 54 provide for a statutory consultation on whether marriage law in England and Wales should be changed to enable belief organisations to conduct legally valid marriages. That was not part of the original policy intent of the Bill and careful consideration is required before any legislative action can be taken, including a full public consultation. It is entirely sensible that that should now be done.
Those amendments are the fruits of a great cross-party effort to achieve an agreed position and to provide a sensible and considered way forward. I would like to take this opportunity to thank my noble Friend, Baroness Stowell and the noble Lord Wallace of Tankerness for the careful and considered way in which they presented the Bill in the other place. By working with Opposition Front Benchers, we have achieved considerable progress in this area.
My right hon. Friend mentions Baroness Stowell, who said in another place that
“marriage does not require the fidelity of couples. It is open to each couple to decide for themselves on the importance of fidelity within their own relationship.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 19 June 2013; Vol. 746, c. 379.]
I find it absolutely astonishing and unbelievable that a Conservative Government Minister should be uttering that. Does my right hon. Friend agree? Is that the Government’s view of marriage?
My view of marriage is clearly that fidelity can be extremely important. This is something on which my hon. Friend and I would very much agree. It can be a commitment between two individuals on, one would hope, a lifelong basis. I think he and I would share the importance of fidelity in that relationship.
Another area of the Bill that has been considered in great detail is that of pensions. Amendment 11, with amendments 16, 27, 34 and 55, deals with survivor benefits under occupational pension schemes. During debate in this House and in the other place important questions were raised, particularly by my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer), about the differences between opposite sex married couples and same-sex married couples with regard to these benefits. The House is fully aware that historically there are many pre-existing discrepancies within the pensions system. To equalise these benefits would come with a considerable price tag. Amendment 11 represents a sensible way forward and has cross-party acceptance. It commits the Government to arranging a review of differences and survivor benefits in occupational pension schemes, and includes an order-making power should one be needed.
Amendments 4 to 8, 12 to 14, 17 to 21, 23—
I note the sedentary observation from the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). The Minister should return to the first group, with which she was dealing. If she has dealt with that group to her satisfaction, we can always await with interest and anticipation her remarks on the second group, but only when we reach it.
I am pleased to welcome the Bill back to the House, and not only because the Chamber is the only cool place in the building and it is some relief to be in here.
This evening, we will see the Bill through its final stages and have the chance to wish it well on its way to Royal Assent. We have the chance to consider the Bill as it is returned to us from the Lords, with the amendments they have tabled. As a result of the Bill, gay and lesbian couples will be able to get married, just as their parents did and just as their friends and relatives do. Couples who love each other are getting engaged already: they are preparing to tie the knot and getting ready for a great party. I have a sneaking suspicion that even some of the opponents of the Bill—certainly many of its supporters—are rather envious of those who are on the Elton John and David Furnish guest list. That will certainly be a proper party.
It is striking how much warmth and celebration the Bill has received. I join the Secretary of State in thanking the House of Lords for its strong cross-party support for the Bill. In particular, I thank Baroness Thornton and Baroness Royall, who led the Labour Front-Bench team in the Lords, but also Baroness Stowell who led for the Government. I am sure the Secretary of State will join me in thanking Lord Alli, who did such a fantastic job building support throughout the other place over many months.
I thank the Prime Minister for sticking with the Bill when those around him called for a halt, and I thank the Secretary of State and her Ministers, who have worked extremely hard; I know how much of their time this has taken up in the Department and Parliament. I also thank my hon. Friends the Members for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who worked so hard from the Labour Front Bench, and all my hon. Friends who came to support the Bill. I am very glad that Labour votes got the Bill through its Second and Third Readings in the House and that we will support it again tonight.
I also thank hon. Members from all parties who voted for the Bill despite personal pressures, perhaps from their faith group, the Government Benches or local political parties. It is not an easy thing to do, but it is the right thing to do.
The right hon. Lady talks about the time the other place gave to scrutinising the Bill, which I respect, but can she point to any non-Government amendments that made it through that scrutiny process? Does she not give some credence to the concerns of the noble Lord Framlingham, who said:
“This House prides itself on being a revising Chamber. On this Bill it has been a bulldozer. We are being used to bulldoze through an ill thought through Bill”?—[Official Report, House of Lords, 15 July 2013; Vol. 747, c. 543.]
I strongly disagree with the hon. Gentleman. The Lords have debated the Bill extensively and have given it strong support. It is true that many of the amendments have Government support, but that reflects the detailed discussions that have taken place between Ministers, Back Benchers and Opposition Front Benchers. For example, the Government now support the amendments on humanism and so on, which they did not when we debated these issues before. As a result of those debates and our efforts to compromise and ensure that the Bill made progress, we reached agreement even among those who disagreed on certain issues. We did that to support the Bill and to promote the strong values that we celebrate in marriage.
On the question of celebration, can we spare a thought for those persons, including supporters of Stonewall, who rallied across the road while the Bill was in the other place, celebrating with rainbow flags, costumes and free ice cream from a well-known ice cream maker—
My hon. Friend is exactly right. While we have been debating the Bill, we have been not only lobbied, but serenaded, most fabulously by the London Gay Men’s Chorus, who sang a rousing version of “Get me to the Church on Time”, which we all joined in with, as the Bill got its Second Reading in the House of Lords. That was a loud and proud, joyous celebration of love, laughter and marriage. That is the spirit in which we should see the Bill through its final stages this evening. As a result of this vote, same-sex couples will have the same recognition and respect from the state, and the same recognition under the law, for their relationship and their love. Because marriage is about the ups and downs, the long-term commitment through thick and thin, so this is also about the right to grow old and grumpy together under the banner of marriage. This is indeed time to celebrate, not discriminate.
As someone who celebrates his 40th wedding anniversary next month and has had many ups and downs, I ask my right hon. Friend: is the Bill not about having a caring relationship between two people who love each other, making that commitment for life and making it all worth while? Why should anyone be excluded from that?
My hon. Friend is exactly right, although I would never accuse him, whom I know so well, of growing old and grumpy with anybody, even after 40 years of marriage. We congratulate him as he celebrates his 40th anniversary.
This is about people celebrating their love for each other regardless of gender or sexuality. That is why the Bill is so important, after we have had changes in the law on the age of consent, membership of the armed forces, discrimination and adoption. In the words of Stonewall, this Bill is the final piece in the jigsaw to get equality under the law, and it is one we should welcome and celebrate.
Order. It is perhaps understandable, but the remarks on both sides are in danger of causing this debate to become a kind of Third Reading debate, which it must not become. There are Lords amendments before us, and it is on those that Members’ remarks must be focused.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that by accepting this group of Lords amendments, we will be completing a journey that started, as she rightly said, with the Adoption and Children Act 2002? I and other hon. Members moved amendments to that legislation to give same-sex couples the right to apply to adopt. They were opposed by Conservative Front Benchers, which resulted in your resignation from that Front Bench, Mr Speaker, and started you on a journey that resulted in your being in the Chair this evening.
In the spirit of your ruling, Mr Speaker, let me say that the reason the points made by my hon. Friends the Members for East Lothian (Fiona O'Donnell) and for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) are relevant—not only to the Lords amendments we are considering, but to the amendments that many people have tried to make, and certainly from the Back Benches—is that there has been a debate about what happens in schools and teaching. We know that the removal of section 28 has been a good thing, which is an example of why people are wrong to be concerned about the impact on teaching. As the Secretary of State said, there are many safeguards in law to protect freedom of religion and belief in these matters, but also to ensure that we do not discriminate. That is what the amendments and this Bill are all about.
I want to refer to some of the most significant amendments passed in the other place, one of which deals with humanism. We made it clear in the House—as have many others—that we support the principle of allowing humanist weddings in England and Wales. We know that 2,500 non-religious couples in Scotland every year already enjoy the meaning and sentiment that having a humanist ceremony can bring to their special day. Humanist weddings are now the third most popular choice of ceremony in Scotland. I gather that humanist funerals are also quite popular in both England and Wales, as well as in Scotland. When it comes to weddings, we think that couples in England and Wales should be able to enjoy the same choices in how they celebrate as they do in their final rites.
My right hon. Friend is generous in giving way again. As we have humanist naming ceremonies —she also referred to humanist funerals—does she not think it right that the whole journey of an individual and their family should have that seamless thread running through it?
That is right. People should be able to have that choice. This is about what are the most important moments in people’s and family’s lives—births and weddings, as well as death and saying goodbye to a loved one. People should be able to choose how those crucial events in their lives are celebrated. That is why we think it right for people to be able to enjoy humanist celebrations as well.
I totally concur with the points my right hon. Friend is making about humanist marriage, and I am glad the Government came back with amendments on this issue. Does she agree that there are important protections in the amendments made in the other place to prevent the possibility of crazy things such as Jedi weddings? This is about humanist weddings, which are very specific. It is not about commercial weddings, Jedi weddings or any of the other scaremongering that we have heard.
My hon. Friend is right. We debated humanism when the Bill was in this place and in Committee, and the Government originally stated that they would not support amendments that would deliver humanist wedding ceremonies in this Bill, citing concern about delaying its passage. We did not, of course, want to delay the Bill’s passage or to create complexities that might have caused unintended problems elsewhere. That is why we did not, in the end, press the matter to a final vote in the Commons, but allowed the proposals to be further considered in the Lords so that Ministers could discuss them further.
The British Humanist Association has certainly proved extremely willing to work with the Government, the Opposition Front-Bench team, Back Benchers and Cross Benchers to find solutions to the various obstacles encountered during the Bill’s passage. I am pleased that, as a result of those discussions, a compromise position was reached so that we can now have a proper review of the legislation, fully considering the implications of legalising humanist wedding ceremonies in England and Wales and having the power to make changes in future. I hope that, one day soon, we will be able to celebrate humanist weddings as well as same-sex weddings.
Weddings are fabulous celebrations, and I really love going to them, but I do not love going to marriages. Marriage is something that people commit to for the whole of their lives—it has ups and downs; pain as well as pleasure and beauty—so it is obviously a very different thing from the one-day fabulous celebration that we all want to enjoy at weddings. However, I think we have a great opportunity to celebrate both weddings and marriages—that is what the Bill is about—and that long-term loving commitment that two people want to make to each other: to put up with each other when things get tough, to look after each other through illness or old age. Being able to make that commitment is hugely important. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) clearly seems to find this something he does not want to celebrate. I suspect he would celebrate such loving commitment in an opposite-sex marriage, so why will he not do so in a same-sex marriage as well? I urge him to do so, to give us a smile and just enjoy the fact that other people are going to get married as a result of this legislation.
Talking of celebrations, Mr Speaker, I want to celebrate the fact that Labour’s shadow equality team has supported all the way through this amendment on the notion of humanist weddings. I am very pleased to see Lords amendment 10 tabled. Some years ago, I attended a humanist funeral for someone in my constituency, and it is one of the most moving occasions I have ever attended. It attested to the value of such a ceremony for somebody with humanist beliefs. I look forward, as I am sure other Members do, to a time after the consultation and review when we will be able to attend humanist marriages. I particularly wanted to celebrate the fact that the Opposition have supported this all the way along.
I thank my hon. Friend for that. My hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston and my noble Friend Baroness Thornton have had many meetings with the British Humanist Association and have worked with the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert), who has been a keen supporter of enabling humanist weddings.
I turn to pension survivor benefits, on which a major amendment was passed in the other place. We want to ensure that through this Bill, we make some progress towards addressing the remaining pensions inequalities between same-sex and opposite-sex couples. Measures have already been taken to equalise survivor benefit entitlements for civil partners with those of widowers under public sector and contracted-out schemes, and I welcome that. However, the estimates of the cost of equalising the remaining differences in survivor benefits have so far been very wide ranging. Everyone has accepted that the equalisation of pensions would involve some small and direct cost to private pension schemes, and the Government have asserted at different stages that equalising the benefits for civil partners and married couples of the same sex could result in a wide range of costs, but we have never seen any breakdown of those costs or of how they are calculated.
Would the right hon. Lady be surprised to hear that neither the House of Commons Library nor the National Association of Pension Funds can provide a list of contracted-in schemes, which means that we cannot identify how the figure was calculated?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We also tried to find out through the House of Commons Library and others how some of the costings produced by the Government could be calculated. Everybody wants to ensure that the approach to the legislation and to pensions is fiscally responsible, and we need to understand what the costs might be, so it has been very frustrating that we have not had a detailed breakdown that justifies the claims of large costs. That makes it implausible to many experts that such costs would accrue. Many experts believe that the costs would not be those that Ministers have suggested would be incurred at different stages. That is why it is right to make this progress in the legislation.
I thank the right hon. Lady for giving way and for her comments earlier about humanist weddings, which we will come back to later. The anomaly with pensions started with the civil partnerships legislation and was about to be continued, but is she really saying that equality should depend on price? Surely we want people to be equal regardless of their sexuality, and cost should not stop us ensuring that.
I think the hon. Gentleman would agree that it is right to get an assessment of what the costs should be before making any decision. It is right to get the information, but unfortunately it has not been forthcoming. Although we have pressed the issue in the Commons and in meetings with Ministers, including the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb)—a member of the same party as the hon. Gentleman who will, I hope, encourage him to provide the detailed evidence we need—it looks to many experts as though the proposal is affordable, doable and will not incur the considerable costs that the Government have suggested. The amendment provides a sensible compromise that will not delay the progress of the Bill while allowing us to make some progress on pensions.
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady, who is being very generous in giving way. Does she agree that whatever the cost, when contribution rates are the same, whether someone is straight or gay, it is not equitable that the pension benefits are different? If people pay the same, they should get the same.
The hon. Gentleman makes exactly the right point about the principle of equality that we should be pursuing. That is why we wanted to see progress made on the legislation. We supported the compromise position proposed by the Government so that we did not delay the Bill but could make progress towards ensuring that the costings were set out and we would have the power to make the changes and establish the equality we all want. That is the right approach.
Will proposed new subsection (6) in amendment 11, which gives the Secretary of State power to make an order in relation to pension benefits, mean that the order will come back to the House in any way, shape or form before it is made? Or are we allowing the Secretary of State the powers to make such an order without further parliamentary scrutiny?
I hope that the Government will be able to make rapid progress and to introduce orders. It is right that they should look into the legal details and consequences of doing so, but I hope that we will be able to see that progress and to scrutinise such orders in this place.
Let me refer briefly to the amendments that relate to a group of people affected by the Bill who are sometimes overlooked in these debates and who still face enormous prejudice—that is, men and women who are transgender. Under the Bill, couples who want to remain married when one partner changes gender will for the first time be able to do so. I am pleased that the Government have made that concession and have allowed a fast-track procedure for gender recognition certificates to take place in particular circumstances, and I am pleased that the issue was debated in such detail in the House of Lords.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the amendments will be welcomed by members of the transgender community, who often feel excluded or, as it were, hyper-marginalised by some of our debates, and that the House of Lords did well to bring forward these amendments?
I do. The issue was debated in Committee, but, given the huge effect that the present situation has on some people’s lives, it tends not to be considered much in comparison with the consideration that is given to other issues. The House of Lords was able to consider it at length, and I believe that we should support its amendments. I know that some Members of both Houses wanted more changes to be made to the Bill, or indeed opposed it in the first place.
May I ask the right hon. Lady a question that I should have asked her earlier? The “humanist” amendment, which she supports, prescribes a clear timetable: a review must be
“produced and published before 1 January 2015.”
Why did she not consider it necessary to demand a timetable for the review of civil partnerships, which she supported during an earlier stage of the Bill’s passage? That provision is open-ended.
I am in favour of a similar, or even more rapid, timetable for the civil partnerships review. In fact, during one of our earlier debates I said that I should like it to proceed alongside consideration of the Bill. Obviously it is for the Government to set the timetable, and, as the hon. Gentleman will know, many of the amendments are a result of discussion and compromise along the way, but I agree that rapid progress and consultation on the civil partnerships review would be useful.
The right hon. Lady has just mentioned discussion and compromise. I am not sure whether we are going to discuss Lords amendment 53, which allows freedom of
“discussion or criticism of marriage”,
but I understand that Labour accepted it in the other place. Obviously such discourse should not be
“threatening or intended to stir up hatred.”
I understand that there was previously a commitment—which, indeed, was included in the Labour party manifesto —to repeal section 29JA of the Public Order Act 1986, the so-called Waddington amendment. Is it now the case that Labour would not proceed with that commitment if it ever had the opportunity to do so?
We took the view that the amendment to the Public Order Act was not necessary, because there was already considerable protection for freedom of religion and freedom of speech. However, we accepted the Government’s amendment because we were content to accept a clarification of the Public Order Act, and because we thought it right to support the Bill. As I have said many times, the Bill is the product of a great deal of cross-party discussion and compromise on a number of issues which took place to ensure that progress could be made.
Other Members wanted to see further changes, but I think that there is already strong protection in case law, in primary legislation and, indeed, in the Human Rights Act for freedom of religion, freedom of belief and freedom of speech. Freedom of speech goes in both directions. Just as the Bill rightly respects and protects the freedom of belief of those who do not want to celebrate same-sex marriage as part of their religion, we should support and respect freedom of belief for faith groups who do want to celebrate it. It is worth reflecting on the fact that these amendments and these debates show just how far we have come in a short period of time for LGBT equality. When the Labour Government proposed changes to the law to get rid of section 28, to end the bar on serving in the armed forces, to end discrimination in employment, to allow gay adoption and to end discrimination in the provision of goods and services, each time there was strong opposition, but now those changes are taken for granted even by those who opposed them at the time.
The House of Lords, whose amendments we are discussing, has changed its attitudes very significantly since it voted to block the repeal of section 28 and to vote against gay adoption. Indeed, this time the House of Lords has for the first time been more progressive than the House of Commons, and we should make sure we do not get left behind. In the Commons 69% of those who voted supported the Bill. In the Lords 72% of those who voted supported the Bill. In the Commons the Bill had a majority among Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs, with the support of just under half of Conservative MPs. In the Lords the Bill had a majority of Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative peers, and a majority of Cross Benchers too. I hope this House will rise to that challenge by giving even stronger support to the Lords amendments and the Bill in its final stages now.
Does the right hon. Lady agree that it is not just attitudes in this House or the other place that have changed, but that there has been a fundamental change in attitudes among the British public? People’s attitudes to sexuality have changed in a very progressive way. A majority of people want to see the law changed. The polling shows a very clear skew between younger voters and older voters, too, so it is very clear in which direction public opinion is moving. That, more than anything, is the key force behind this Bill.
The hon. Gentleman is exactly right about that change in attitudes, and we heard it from some Members in the House of Lords who now strongly support this Bill, having previously opposed other legislation that provided for equality in this area. As the legislation has changed, so attitudes have changed, and as the legislation has changed further, so attitudes have changed further. Step by step, the law and public attitudes have moved forward in a progressive way, and we need to complete those steps. I hope we will do so now with the passage of this Bill.
It is certainly the case that attitudes in this country have changed, but we have still to see more progress around the world. Just yesterday a prominent Cameroon gay rights activist was found murdered there. Their neck was broken and their body was broken. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this debate on this group of amendments this evening will encourage people all over the world to follow the progressive attitudes we are talking about?
I agree with my hon. Friend. As the House of Lords was discussing these amendments, I was talking to some of those outside who were joining in the demonstrations in support of this Bill. There were some who are involved in Ugandan and Cameroon groups and organisations who are campaigning for basic human rights for people who live in those countries and can find themselves persecuted. They certainly do not enjoy equality before the law or basic human rights and respect for their freedom as well as for their relationships.
I hope this is not simply the end of a process, because this is not just about the legislation. It is also about how we make sure it is implemented in practice and how we go further in terms of equality. I hope that many of those who have opposed this Bill will come to celebrate it in future. I hope that many of the religious organisations and Churches whose religious freedom we have rightly respected and protected will also change their minds in future and celebrate the marriages of same-sex couples in their congregations. I hope, too, that all of us will do more to challenge discrimination and injustice wherever we find it—challenge prejudice and homophobic bullying in schools or the workplace—so that no one is discriminated against on grounds of sexuality and gender.
In previous debates on the Bill, I have quoted those who have been most affected by it, and I hope that you will indulge me, Mr Speaker, if I conclude my remarks on the amendments by quoting briefly from an e-mail from someone who has contacted me to tell me of his support for the legislation. It is important that we in the House hear the voices of those who are most heavily affected by the legislation that we are debating.
I received this e-mail from a 19-year-old man after the Bill had completed its previous stages in this House, and while it was being debated in the House of Lords. He was concerned that the House of Lords might somehow not pass the Bill, and he wrote this to me:
“Whilst I have known for a few years that I am gay, it was only five weeks ago that I came out to my parents and close friends. Prior to this, I had gone through an initial stage of denial and then a stage of acceptance but without having anyone to turn to. The progress of the Bill through Parliament has pushed LGBT equality up the political agenda and made me feel more accepted by the society in which I live....This legislation will help young people who find themselves in a similar situation that I was in a year ago. They will be assured in the knowledge that the law recognises their relationships equally to heterosexual relationships. I have struggled through this stage of my life and now live safe in the knowledge that my close family and friends accept me for who I am...History will most certainly be on your side. With the greatest sincerity, thank you.”
I want to conclude by saying to the House: thank you for supporting this legislation, and I hope that we will send it strongly on its way to Royal Assent this evening.
I wish to speak to amendments 1 and 2. Throughout the passage of the Bill, Ministers have acted in good faith and with good intentions to make it clear that they did not want it to encroach on religious liberty. In fact, they have given a 100% guarantee on that. That guarantee has focused on religious premises and the wedding ceremony. Hon. Members have scrutinised the Bill in Committee, on Report and in the other place to determine how secure the locks will be. Scrutiny has been carried out by those who oppose the Bill, not by Her Majesty’s Opposition. In relation to the locks, I remember that not a single amendment was tabled in Committee to clauses 1 or 2, even though they cover a key aspect of the Bill—namely, the encroachment on religious liberty.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I have been involved in the ups and downs of the Bill, and I have noticed from our debates on important clauses such as 1 and 2, on safeguarding religious liberty and on those who wish to opt in or out of same-sex marriage ceremonies, that the bulk of the scrutiny has come from those who oppose the Bill. That includes two thirds of the members of the parliamentary Conservative party, who did not support the Bill on Third Reading, with honourable additions in the form of members of other parties.
Concerns have been raised throughout the Bill’s passage by non-Church of England denominations, especially the Catholic Church, to which I pay tribute for its hard work and engagement with those on all sides of the argument. This is at the heart of amendments 1 and 2. Hon. Members have sought clarity through tabling amendments in Committee and on Report in this House and in the other place about the meaning of the word “compelled”. I pay tribute to Ministers for listening to the debate and to the views of the Joint Committee on Human Rights in this regard, and I am grateful to the Government for tabling Lords amendments 1 and 2, which properly clarify the meaning of the word. They allay many of the concerns that have been raised about the quadruple lock.
I understand from the main denominations that they are satisfied that the locks now in place with the additional clarification are comprehensive and will protect both religious individuals and religious organisations on the issue of conducting same-sex marriage ceremonies. Those amendments, coupled with Ministers’ assurances and explanations, particularly those given in the other place on the meaning of “compelled”, make it clear that compulsion “by any means”—those three words will have a very important impact on denominations on this matter—is prohibited under the Bill.
Therefore, as I understand it, any type of detrimental or unfavourable treatment, any civil or criminal action or penalty, and any less favourable treatment undertaken by a public authority against a religious organisation or individual that has not performed, has decided not to perform or has refused to perform a clause 2(1) or clause 2(2) activity will be absolutely prohibited. The words “by any means” are enormously welcomed by denominations beyond the reaches of the Church of England.
Religious organisations are protected. The Government’s amendments also protect them, when they are deciding whether or not to perform a clause 2(1) activity, against challenges—we pressed on these throughout the stages of the Bill—under the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Equality Act 2010, which has been mentioned, and by way of judicial review or any other legal challenge on the ground that the religious organisation’s decision involves the exercise of a public function. I recognise that the Government have never considered that decision to involve the exercise of a public function, despite much debate and scrutiny, not least by the Joint Committee on Human Rights. However, the Government’s amendments 1 and 2 alleviate the perceived risk and that has an important impact; it is a real, measurable improvement made during the passage of the Bill.
We saw progress in the Commons Public Bill Committee, when heroes and villains came as witnesses before us. The Catholic contribution was met with derision in some ways. One area that met with derision concerned the amendment before us, as the point was made in a considered way that we needed to clarify the word “compelled”. So I welcome the fact that we have moved on from that derision. We have moved on from the swatting away of the amendments that sought this clarification in the Commons Public Bill Committee—[Interruption.] We have also moved on from the “Star Wars” theme and the Jedi knights discussion. I am not sure what theme we need to move us into this particular passage. The helpful contributions made in the other place have moved us towards amendments 1 and 2, so we should not underestimate the movement and progress that have been made. There has been a lot of debate about the locks and how we have reached this point.
The hon. Gentleman has outlined some of the steps forward that the amendments have made in at least addressing some of the issues raised by the religious groups. Opposition spokespeople, Members and Ministers have detailed the number of minority groups with religious views that were glad to see that the Bill had been changed. Does he recognise, as I do, the large number of religious groups, from across the whole UK, that were opposed to this measure? Even now, with the changes he has outlined, many people are opposed to it.
I fully recognise that, and I have yet to come to my “but” and the concerns out there, which go beyond the issue of the marriage ceremony and religious premises. We recognise that the Government’s and Ministers’ commitment to this Bill not resulting in an encroachment on religious liberty—indeed there is a 100% guarantee—does not just encompass the walls of a church or religious premises; it goes beyond that into the public square and relates to people manifesting their faith in their workplace, their school and beyond. It is that area of scrutiny where the “but” comes in, although I still want to be positive before I get to that.
I pay tribute to the Quakers and, in particular, to the Winchmore Hill friends meeting house, where there is a proud tradition of human rights. It is one of the oldest friends meeting houses and was involved in the early movement to abolish the slave trade, working alongside William Wilberforce and others. I recognise the involvement of the Quakers in these key issues and the fact that they have been involved in providing religious freedom for Quakers and others; I do recognise that engagement.
If I may, I shall make a little more progress.
I welcome Lords amendment 53, which is the sole amendment that has resulted in this group’s title on the selection list including the phrase “freedom of expression”. It deals with such freedom beyond the marriage ceremony, and I commend the other place for amending the Public Order Act 1986 by extending section 29JA to ensure that there is protection for
“discussion or criticism of marriage which concerns the sex of the parties to marriage”.
The amendment plainly states that such discourse cannot possibly
“be taken of itself to be threatening or intended to stir up hatred.”
The explanatory notes make the important point:
“To the extent that this provision removes any discouragement to discourse about marriage which relates to the sex of parties to marriage (where that discourse is not threatening and intended to stir up hatred), it could be argued that it has a positive effect on the Article 9 and 10 rights of those wishing to engage in this discourse.”
It is important that we do not overstate the extent of that protection for freedom of expression, because Lords amendment 53 does not necessarily address the situation faced by teachers and public sector workers. In 2004, in the Committee that considered the Bill that became the Civil Partnership Act 2004, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) said:
“I believe that marriage is an institution that is ordained of God and should be celebrated between a man and a woman. However, I also believe that two men or two women can have a relationship that in many ways mirrors that between a man and a woman but is not identical…I do not think that one is more valuable than the other—they are simply different.”—[Official Report, Standing Committee D, 21 October 2004; c. 70.]
If someone were to engage in such discourse publicly and loudly on the public square in any hon. Member’s constituency, they would be protected from criminalisation and prosecution under the Public Order Act 1986, which is welcome, but would such a person be protected if they were engaged in public sector employment, or working in a school or charity? Will such people be free from public authorities compelling them not to express their conscientious view?
The Secretary of State acknowledged these concerns when she said to the Joint Committee on Human Rights:
“such an uncertainty perhaps, in people’s minds, can create a chilling effect in terms of people bringing cases. I do think that there is a continuing requirement to make sure that people have clarity that any such discrimination would be not right and not lawful.”
She and her Ministers have been at pains to give us assurance after assurance that the Bill gives adequate protection for freedom of expression and the manifestation of such views, but even at this late stage, even though we will probably have to rely on order-making powers, I ask her to ensure that there will be clear freedom of expression.
It is a genuine pleasure to be able to speak on such an historic occasion. The fact that we are discussing a relatively small, concise and consensual group of Lords amendments shows the extent of the scrutiny that the Bill has received in both Houses, as well as the clear will of both Houses at all stages of its passage, notwithstanding the objections that have been raised. Despite several claims to the contrary, anyone who has followed the debates in the Chamber or in Committee, or indeed during the late-night sittings in the other place, will know that the suggestion that it has not received adequate scrutiny is not true.
I commend the fact that most debates in this House have taken place in a highly respectful manner, which sends out a helpful message to the public and especially our young people. I am sorry to say that that was not always the case in the other place, but I hope that lessons have been learned on both sides about how to conduct such debates respectfully and in a caring manner.
The Lords amendments underline the Bill’s fundamental characteristics of being permissive and protective. The crucial point is that the Bill will not compel anyone to do anything that they do not want to do, and religious organisations that do not want to conduct same-sex marriages will not have to do so. Given the myths that have been out there in the public, it is important to underline that the Bill is about permission and that it includes the appropriate protections that Conservative Members have sought. The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) has asked for clarification on several points, and I note that he is happy with Lords amendments 1 and 2, which he believes offer additional protections. It is crucial that we understand that. That was the Government’s intent and has been further strengthened following the discussions in the Lords.
As we have noted, there have been amendments about the meaning of “compelled”. I do not think that was entirely necessary, but if it provides additional assurances and additional protections and makes people feel more comfortable, that is a good thing. We have seen important clarification of some technical aspects—for example, about who can authorise marriages. Particularly in the case of people of the Jewish faith, important clarifications were provided in the Lords, which will help with the application of the law.
I am pleased to see clarity about deliberate malfeasance by anybody trying to marry in a religion or denomination that does not permit same-sex marriage. No misuse of the legislation would be permitted. I welcome the provisions relating to pensions. It is crucial that the review takes place as soon as possible in order to right a fundamental inequality that may exist for a number of couples. There is provision for secondary legislation to right that.
Issues relating to changes of gender are complex and difficult but it is important to clarify them, especially with respect to transsexuals who did not get a gender recognition certificate because it would have meant the end of their marriage. That serves to underline the importance that most people in this country attach to marriage, and it illustrates why so many people want the Bill to go forward. The fact that some people who wanted to maintain their marriage felt unable to get their gender recognition certificate shows the crazy quandaries that we put people in. This is a chance to put all that right.
Absolutely. That is the point that has come out in all the debates.
We have also seen protections for those who disagree. The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate seems happy with those. I felt that protection already existed, but if the additional protections please other people and make them feel more secure, that can only be a good thing. The comments of Baroness Stowell were important when she said that the amendments that were agreed do not allow hate speech. There are two sides to this. We will protect the rights of people who disagree in a calm and respectful manner, but when that steps over into a different type of speech, which unfortunately has happened in some of the public debate, that is entirely unacceptable.
We have spoken about humanist marriages and I have stated my strong support for those to be able to go ahead. I am a person of faith, but I have seen how important humanist marriages are. I have had many representations from humanists in my constituency. As I have mentioned before, the former Assembly Member for my constituency is a humanist celebrant. I know how many people who want to take part in those ceremonies are ready to come forward—[Interruption.] I cannot quite hear what my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) is saying from a sedentary position but I am sure it is something supportive. I am glad that the door has been left open. I hope the review will take place. Other useful clarifications were made during that debate in the other place.
It is important to underline again that the protections that come through this set of amendments are all in addition to existing ones in the Bill. A great deal of thought went into the Bill and I commend the Government for that and for respecting and trying to understand the concerns that had legitimately been expressed, which have been answered comprehensively. I am glad that the protections provided by the amendments are on top of the protections in the original text and in other legislation such as the Equality Act 2010. These things were all carefully considered long before I came into this place. It is important that we recognise that. It is not as though there was some sort of free-for-all or the ability to abuse various circumstances.
In conclusion, the Lords amendments are the result of detailed, technical and careful consideration, which is the opposite of some of the claims that have been made. Ultimately, they reflect the will of Members in both Houses to right an injustice in the laws of our land. It is about putting in place the final piece of the equality jigsaw referred to by Stonewall and other organisations. I am very glad that we have reached this stage. As other hon. Members have commented, it reflects a wider change that has taken place in public attitudes. Of the many surveys that have taken place, one shows that 80% of people under the age of 50 welcome the changes and that three in every five people with faith also want them to go through. I think that reflects how far we have come, both in the public and in both Houses.
The hon. Gentleman says that three in every five people with faith support these changes, but that is not what we heard in Committee, when a number of people from different religious organisations came to us, and they referred to having memberships in the hundreds of thousands, and perhaps even half a million. I am very interested to hear where he got the figure of three in every five.
Order. I do not think that the point made by the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) is covered by an amendment, and now that time is short we really must be self-disciplined, because otherwise colleagues who wish to contribute will be unable to do so, and it will be no good complaining to me.
Thank you for bringing us back into order, Mr Speaker.
At an earlier stage I suggested that we might want to recognise the celebrations that have taken place elsewhere, such as in New Zealand, with lots of singing. We are wearing our carnations tonight, and I would be very happy to sing at the first of the marriages under the new legislation. To do so now would be very disorderly, but I would be happy to be present to recognise that love and that celebration. I am very glad that we have come to this place.
This is a monumental day for many people; be they straight, gay, lesbian or bi, they will benefit from the freedoms and opportunities in the Bill. I think that it will be seen as one of the great legacies of this Government. I would like to thank all those who have played a role, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone), whom I am delighted to see in her place, because without her personal initiative three years ago this simply would not have happened, so I say thank you to her.
I would also like to thank colleagues in the Lords who pushed it through: Baronesses Barker and Brinton, Lord Lester, Cross Benchers such as Lord Pannick, and even the Bishop of Leicester, who pushed very hard to get a sensible outcome. I would also like to thank the Liberal Democrat LGBT+ organisation for its sterling work. Perhaps the whole House will join me in congratulating its vice-chair, Ed Fordham, who last night got engaged to his partner, Russell Eagling.
Order. It is always of great interest to the House to hear the contents of the hon. Gentleman’s Christmas card list, and I do not wish to cavil at his sincerity, but if he could turn his mighty mind to the Lords amendments with characteristic succinctness, the House will be indebted to him.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.
Let me turn to Lords amendment 10. It feels that it has been ages since I initially tabled the first version of that amendment to try to allow humanist weddings. It has been a long struggle, alongside hon. colleagues, and I would particularly like to mention the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), with whom it has been a great pleasure to work, and my hon. Friends the Members for Bristol West (Stephen Williams) and for St Austell and Newquay (Stephen Gilbert). It was a choppy passage, which is odd because the premise seems simple enough: humanists should be able to get married under their rules. After all, Christians, Jews, Quakers, Muslims, Sikhs and even spiritualists are allowed to, so why not humanists, particularly since that works in Scotland? We had a somewhat unedifying debate at the end of our considerations in this place, which I think is a testament to the complexity of marriage law, which has caused many problems, but I am delighted that we have got there and that the review will be conducted properly with a view to ensuring that we get this right. I was critical of some officials, but I think that they have now worked very well with the British Humanist Association.
We have also made progress on pension inequality. I must say that I do not think that the cost of equality should matter. Is £1 million too much for equality? What about £10 million, or £20 million? I do not think that is the right argument and hope that we can make progress on that, just as I hope that we can make progress on equal civil partnerships.
The one thing really missing is a lot of issues for those who are transgendered. We have not restored the marriages, and there is much more to do with the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973, and we are still providing pension support only for the cispartners of transpeople, not the transpeople themselves. The trans community is still marginalised and will continue to be after the Bill is passed. Far too often LGBT seems to stop too early. We must look at that. The Bill will not end homophobia, but it will make a lot of people’s lives very much happier.
I am glad to speak to this important group of amendments to this important Bill, which is a piece of proposed legislation that rights past wrong. The Bill will ensure that gay and lesbian residents of Hackney North and Stoke Newington, and countrywide, will have the chance to marry the person they love, and for that love to be recognised by the law and the wider community.
Before I move to the detail of the amendments, we have heard some thank-yous from the Front Benches, and we should also thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), Baroness Thornton in the other House who helped to steer these amendments through, Baroness Stowell, and the Liberal Baroness Northover. One remarkable thing about the amendments is that they represent genuine cross party co-operation and hard work, and having seen the consequences of them, I know how deeply grateful the LGBT community is not just in Hackney North but right around the country for that cross-party work in the other place. One must, of course, also pay tribute to Stonewall.
Throughout the passage of the Bill, the Labour party has supported the principle of allowing humanist weddings in England and Wales, as already happens in Scotland, and I have urged the Government properly to consider the practical implementation of that. Every year, 2,500 non-religious couples in Scotland enjoy the meaning and sentiment that a humanist ceremony can bring to their wedding. Humanist weddings are the third most popular choice of ceremony in Scotland, and we are glad that couples in England and Wales will be able to enjoy the same choice. The Government originally stated that they could not support these amendments, but we are glad that with cross-party co-operation, we have reached a position where the Bill can be accordingly amended.
I acknowledge that in some ways the amendments on consent and gender recognition certificates do not go far enough, but we have made some progress. Trans campaign groups interpreted the original Bill to mean that individuals undergoing gender reassignment and seeking full legal status in a new gender would have to seek the consent of their spouse before a full gender recognition certificate could be issued. Following cross-party negotiations, the Government agreed to clarify the issue of consent within the Bill, and the amendments make it clear that the spouse is not consenting to the issuing of a full gender recognition certificate, but to the terms of their marriage certificate being changed. The Government also conceded on a fast-track procedure for the gender recognition certificate where a person who has been living in a new gender for an extended period, and I am glad to rise in support of those amendments.
The relationship between legislation made in this House and popular opinion is complex. Sometimes popular opinion leads politicians, and sometimes politicians lead popular opinion. On this issue, popular opinion has led the House, and all the better for that.
To conclude, I can do no better than quote the words of a Member in the other place, my noble and very good Friend Lord Alli. Yesterday he said:
“You have given me dignity where there was sometimes fear, you have given me hope where there was often darkness, and you have given me equality where there was sometimes prejudice”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 15 July 2013; Vol. 747, c. 534.]
I am pleased to join in the celebration tonight in so far as I have been able to find one clause in this wretched Bill with which I agree. Lords amendment 53 relates to freedom of speech, and I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has been instrumental in accepting it. Nevertheless, it is astonishing that a Bill for which there is absolutely no mandate, and which a majority of Conservatives voted against, has been bulldozed through both Houses. Just two hours of debate tonight is an absolute parliamentary disgrace and the Government should think carefully in future because if they want the support of Members on these Benches, offending large swathes of the Conservative party is not a good way of going about it.
Forgive me but I will not give way because a lot of colleagues wish to speak.
I am pleased with amendment 53, but what my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) said about the chill factor is important. I advise the House to be very careful. Despite all that has been said here, lots of people out there will feel unable to express, or will be inhibited from expressing, their true opinion that marriage can only be between a man and a woman. That is because we live in a politically correct society. It will be interesting to see what happens to teachers. How many teachers will feel able to express their views, even in denominational schools, for fear of upsetting their political masters and losing their jobs?
I will not, because I have limited time and a lot of colleagues want to speak.
I hope that the Government are serious about moving swiftly to prevent that from happening and that the Opposition will support them should they decide to do so.
This is not happening only outside this place, Mr Speaker, but inside this place.
This is about freedom of expression, as the hon. Gentleman ought to be aware.
Someone who was coming to my meeting had several copies of those pamphlets. I hope you will be interested to know, Mr Speaker, that the pamphlets were seized and removed from that person. I was incensed and went down to Cromwell Green to find out what was going on. When I said, “By what authority has this material been removed?”, I was told that it was by the authority of the House. I put it to you, Mr Speaker, and to the House: if that is going on in this place, can you imagine what will go on up and down the country once this Bill is enacted?
On Monday my noble Friend Lord Fowler said in another place:
“It has never ever been our case—those of us who want reform—that opposition is homophobic.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 15 July 2013; Vol. 747, c. 544.]
I fear that anybody who speaks out in favour of the belief that marriage can only be a union between a man and a woman will be accused of being homophobic. Most people do not want to be accused of suchlike. Most people do not want to be accused of being racist and therefore did not raise the issue of immigration. Of course, we are told by the Leader of the Opposition that it is now all right to talk about immigration, but for a long time it was not.
Does my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison) still wish to intervene on me? After all, this is about freedom of expression.
My point was about freedom of expression, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend. When we debated this in Committee, one of the examples given was that in all the years that Catholic teachers in Catholic schools have been teaching their own views on abortion, nobody has been prosecuted for that. People have been free to teach that view within that religious context, so there is no reason to think that teachers in religious schools will have any problem with this Bill.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that issue. It is interesting that surgeons are not required to perform abortions. What sort of tolerance is it—I am looking at my parliamentary neighbour, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State—for this Bill to impose on registrars who may have served for 25 years that their conscience will not be allowed to be spared and they will have to do as it requires or surrender their jobs? This is not the tolerance that the Conservative party should be espousing in our country. If there are provisions whereby atheists do not have to teach religion in schools and surgeons do not have to perform abortions if it is against their conscience, why was the amendment in the other place, which was argued for by so many noble Lords and Ladies, rejected?
I apologise for interrupting my hon. Friend’s speech, but it is important that the House is aware that registrars do not wish to have any sort of provision. They perform a public function and they believe it is very important that they do so without any sort of dispensation. [Interruption.]
My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) tells me that there is no representative body for registrars and so they were not able to give a corporate view. However, there are registrars who do not wish to—[Interruption.] Apparently I am going to be shouted down. If I go out on to the streets, what will happen? Will Labour Members uphold my right to freedom of expression or join in the shouting?
I understand that a van drove around yesterday proclaiming the case of those of us who oppose the Bill. It had a picture on it of two men and a little girl under the caption, “What about Sophie?”, but the driver received such abuse that the company stopped the van going around the square. I say to those Opposition Members who are keen to champion freedom of expression and to stand up for minorities that they should stand up for the majority who feel that they are being intimidated.
That brings me neatly to the question: what about children? Neither my right hon. Friend the Minister nor the Opposition spokeswoman, the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), has mentioned children. I want to celebrate marriage. Marriage between a man and a woman leads, generally speaking, to children, but marriage between two men or two women will not lead to the production of children. This is a very serious matter. Therefore, on the question of freedom of expression, I hope that those of us who proclaim that view will not be shouted down or denied our view.
Others wish to speak so I shall conclude by saying that I believe that, ideally, children need a mother and a father—that is what all the evidence shows—and preferably a mother and father in a marriage. I am utterly, completely, irredeemably opposed to this Bill and this is my last chance to speak against it before it is enacted. I believe it will lead to serious unintended consequences and that it debases traditional marriage. I will conclude with the words of a former Deputy Speaker of this House who is better known to us as Sir Michael Lord, but who now rejoices in the title of Lord Framlingham:
“This Bill is built entirely on pretence. It pretends that there is no difference between a man and a woman.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 15 July 2013; Vol. 747, c. 544.]
That is a formidable basis upon which to build legislation that affects all our people in this land.
It is a pleasure to be able to contribute to this debate on Lords amendments, because this is the first time I have had the opportunity to speak on this Bill. Having listened to the often powerful and personal testimony of many Members from all parties and given that many of them have suffered abuse, violence and discrimination, I did not feel that I had earned the right to comment. Tonight, however, I think we can celebrate.
It saddens me that the hon. Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) thought that Members were seeking to shout him down when he spoke to the amendments on freedom of expression. No one was attempting to do that, but some of his comments provoked, let us say, an emotive response from Opposition Members. Whenever I have seen people outside this place celebrating the passage of the Bill, I have seen others holding placards with statements that I found deeply distasteful—some referred to a man lying with another man as a sin—but I never saw anyone being lifted by the police.
I am happy for the hon. Gentleman to heckle me. That is not about freedom of expression; it is about a healthy debate in which we all have strong emotions, and I would expect no less of him. I hope he respects the fact that the feelings of those of us who support the Bill are as strong as his.
It is clear that people have been able to air their views. The hon. Gentleman referred to a van with the caption, “But what about Sophie?”. I do not approve of anyone removing anyone else’s right to freedom of expression, but at the same time I think that sometimes we have to put ourselves in the shoes of people we would not always walk alongside. For someone to imply that a loving parent is not fit to perform their role is deeply offensive. We need a little sensitivity when considering these issues.
As a few hon. Members have said, Lords amendments 1 and 2 are not absolutely necessary, but I support anything that reassures Members who do not support the Bill that it is not about removing people’s freedom to hold their views. The Bill has struck the right balance, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) said. There was rigorous scrutiny in the Public Bill Committee. On many a sleepless night, I invited my hon. Friend into my living room as I watched the Committee’s sittings. The Committee struck the right tone, as have the shadow Minister and the Minister in this debate. We are sensitive to the feelings of those who oppose the Bill and I am glad that they have found some comfort in those two amendments.
Lords amendment 10 considers the issue of humanist weddings. As a Scot, I was incredibly lucky to attend a humanist wedding for the first time almost two years ago. Unfortunately, I have attended a few humanist funerals as well. The couple did not feel that a register office would allow them to express their love and commitment in the way that they wanted on their wedding day. It was a deeply moving ceremony, full of music and personal contributions from the two young people who were marrying each other.
The amendment is welcome. I hope that we can overcome the complexities. In Scotland, such ceremonies are enabled by the fact that it is the person who is fit and capable to perform the marriage, not the place that is suitable. I am sure that the Government will work with the Opposition, as they have on many of the issues in the Bill, to find a way to ensure that couples in England and Wales can celebrate their love through a humanist wedding.
It is an interesting feature of our modern democracy in the UK that we can play the game of equality tag, whereby one of the devolved Parliaments or Assemblies sets the pace on an equality issue and this place catches up. If I leave this House in May 2015, I will be proud that I was here tonight to see this Parliament lead the way for the rest of the UK. I look forward to the Scottish Parliament bringing forward its own legislation and to my colleagues there having to deal with as many e-mails as I have received during the passage of the Bill.
On Lords amendment 11, it is heartening that the Government and the Opposition have managed to find a way to move forward on this issue. I agree with the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) that we cannot put a price on equality. We need to work with the sector, as we did on the issue of access to public transport for people with disabilities, when there was a recognition that we needed to give the sector time to make all vehicles accessible. I remember the furore over the costs. It was said that it was not realistic or practical. However, when we get into a bus or a taxi now, we all expect that vehicle to be accessible. Labour has consistently supported an amendment on this issue and it is great that the Government now say that we will have a time-limited review so that we can make progress. The gender of the two people who commit to a relationship should not affect their rights. The rights within a marriage should be the same for everyone. I look forward to hearing the conclusions of that review.
Lords amendments 42 and 43, which were tabled by the Government, demonstrate that the Bill will have consequences that some of us had not foreseen. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth, who is no longer in his place, said that when someone in a relationship goes through a gender transition, it is important that that fact does not change the value, authenticity and worth of the marriage. Such couples should remain in a marriage if they wish to do so.
In conclusion, it is a matter of great sorrow that some of my constituents have felt disappointed in me personally for supporting the Bill. Members who oppose it seem to be genuinely hurt and outraged that we would dare to push it through, but I hope that we can all respect it, just as those who refer to themselves as defenders of traditional marriage can understand that for those of us who support the Bill we can no more imagine changing our minds on this than we can imagine swapping our children for someone else’s.
My hon. Friend makes another excellent contribution. I am glad that society will be different from the one I was born into. There was progress by the time my children were born, but as my grandchildren rapidly arrive on the planet I hope we have a better society still. This is a good Bill that will do good. It has been made better by these amendments, and I am delighted to have had the opportunity to contribute to the debate.
I will endeavour to be brief, Mr Speaker.
Lords amendment 53, on freedom of expression, is important. It has been the mission of many of us to ensure that this important step forward on equality also protects religious freedom. In making it clear that mere criticism of same-sex marriage is not an offence, the amendment surely deals with the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) about the “chilling” factor that such legislation may engender. I must say to him that it also behoves those who call for freedom of speech to ensure that the words they choose are temperate and reasonable. Words may not and should not become a matter for criminal law. I am with my hon. Friend on that, including on the defence of free speech in relation to the offence of incitement of hatred against homosexual people. However, when phrases such as “aggressive homosexuals”—the phrase my hon. Friend used on Second Reading—are used, they take freedom of expression to an unreasonable extent and do cause offence.
My hon. Friend has not listened to a word I have said. I have just said that nobody should be prosecuted for words that are merely offensive, but that does not absolve those who use those words of causing that offence. If my hon. Friend and others are calling for freedom of expression and not to be prosecuted—as they should not be—for merely criticising activity or conduct, they have a responsibility to use words carefully that do not cause grave offence to a considerable section of the community. It would be considered intolerable to talk of aggressive blacks or aggressive Jews. Perhaps even my hon. Friend would not consider it acceptable to do that, but he did consider it acceptable to use the phrase “aggressive homosexuals”. I regret that, and that is why I find it so difficult to accept what he says about the importance of the chilling factor.
The second group of amendments to which I shall refer relates to those applying to clause 9. On Lords amendment 4 on the conversion of civil partnerships into marriage, it has surely been a fundamental proposition of the Bill that the status of civil partnerships is no longer considered adequate to confer equality on gay people.
Order. I was just checking that I had not misheard the right hon. Gentleman. Whatever his temptation to dilate on Lords amendment 4 he must resist it, because that is in the second group that we have not reached. He should stick to the first group, and I am sure he has got plenty to say on that.
I am very happy to stick to the first group, Mr Speaker.
I hope that Lords amendments 10, 15, 26, 27 and 54, relating to humanist weddings, are in that group. They make provision to allow the dislocation of weddings from premises, to which further consideration will be given. I was at such a wedding in the United States a few weeks ago, and at such weddings it is common to read words that were delivered by the Supreme Court of Massachusetts 10 years ago and which ring true today:
“Because it fulfils yearnings for security, safe haven, and connection that express our common humanity, civil marriage is an esteemed institution, and the decision whether and whom to marry is among life’s momentous acts of self-definition. Without the right to marry one is excluded from the full range of human experience”.
In words that get to the kernel of the matter and these amendments, the Court continued:
“The history of our nation has demonstrated that separate is seldom, if ever, equal.... The dissimilitude between the terms ‘civil marriage’ and ‘civil union’ is not innocuous; it is a considered choice of language that reflects a demonstrable assigning of same-sex, largely homosexual, couples to second-class status.... For no rational reason the marriage laws…discriminate against a defined class; no amount of tinkering with language will eradicate that stain.”
That surely is the point. It is no longer considered acceptable by a majority of the public, the House of Commons and the other place.
The Bill was not bulldozed through; it was voted through by considerable majorities in both Houses, and it reflects a fundamental change of attitude for the better in our society. The Bill will do no harm to those not affected and it will protect those who do not wish to join in, but, in recognising the place of gay people in our society, it will do a great deal of good for people who love each other and want to express a permanent commitment to each other. For that reason, I will be proud to have been a Member of the House of Commons when it passed the Bill and to see it—I hope—given Royal Assent within a matter of days.
Many of my constituents contacted me who support humanist weddings but were disturbed when they thought they were going to drop out of the Bill. I know the Government were concerned they might be a diversion and so delay the Bill, but I am pleased that, after discussion and debate, they have been included. I am marginally amused, however, that the amendment asks for a review, given that I have sat through several Bill Committees recently in which the Opposition have been berated for tabling amendments seeking a review, rather than immediate action, and for somehow wimping out. Perhaps a review is appropriate if there are concerns about the mechanics of how something will work.
Lots of people would have liked the opportunity of a humanist ceremony. Certainly, I wish they had been available when I got married—more years ago than I care to recall. At that time, if someone was not religious—I belonged to a family that was strong, but not religious—the choice was a simple register office ceremony or, for some, to pretend to be religious. Humanist ceremonies, whether for weddings or other periods of life, offer something more profound that reflects upon our humanity and our connections to each other. Humanist weddings give people the opportunity to celebrate their love and commitment to each other, while, in sadder circumstances, humanist funerals avoid that vague religious feeling that might be totally meaningless to the family and which might have meant nothing to the person who died. It is the same with weddings.
I am pleased that this measure is going forward, therefore, and I hope that my constituents who wrote to me will be pleased. Like many others, I have constituents who are disturbed by the Bill, but I hope and believe that in a few years a lot of their concerns will have been put to bed and we will have moved on.
It is instructive that, despite your valiant efforts, Mr Speaker, this debate has been so discursive, because very little has changed in the other place. We had long, lyrical passages from the shadow Secretary of State about the beauty of marriage, but even a cursory examination of the amendments—[Interruption.]
I can smile, yes.
Even a cursory examination of the amendments made in the other place confirms that very little has been done to protect freedom of conscience. We get a crumb of comfort, it is true, from Lords amendments 1 and 2, which tighten up the quad locks that are meant to stop Churches doing same-sex marriages. We were told repeatedly in this place that the quad locks needed no tightening, but better late than never, I suppose. A sinner—even the Government—who comes late into the vineyard of truth is just as welcome.
Then there is Lords amendment 53. Apparently it means that if someone says that they believe in a man-woman marriage, they will not be deemed to be “inciting homophobic hatred”. What a bizarre country we live in, when declaring one’s support for the Marriage Act 1949, under which most of us were married, could be deemed to be stirring up hatred. Indeed, such is the risk that we have to legislate against it. I hope that amendment 53 has some read-across to the offences in section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 and other offences with a much lower threshold than “homophobic incitement”. They are the laws that we should be worried about, even after our amendment to remove the “insulting” limb comes into effect.
Nothing whatever has been done to alleviate the concerns of thousands of Church schools and tens of thousands of teachers, who fear that they will be ordered to teach a view of marriage that conflicts profoundly with their deeply held views. I predict that within five years a chill will descend on the 2,200 Catholic schools, because they will feel under an obligation to teach a view of marriage that is “balanced”—a word that Ministers themselves have used. I am sorry, but the view of the Catholic Church and other Churches on marriage is not “balanced”; it is a view. It is the view that marriage is between one man and one woman for life. It is not a balanced view; it is a view, and increasingly a “balanced” view will have to be taught.
Ministers keep telling us that the views of those teachers and others who are worried about this issue are respectable and that they are free to hold and express them, but they have done nothing to guarantee that. That is being left to chance. When we have a toxic mix of this Bill and the Equality Act 2010, anything could happen. It is like an experiment with unstable substances that could blow up at any minute. The Government should be legislating to stabilise the situation, but they steadfastly refuse. Earlier this year, the House voted for my ten-minute rule Bill to protect employees from suffering detriment at the hands of their employers for believing in traditional marriage. Ministers kept saying, “It’ll never happen”, but of course it is already happening. We have all read about the cases, even before the Bill has become law. The Government just do not care enough to solve the problem and protect Church schools.
When gay rights activists—not aggressive; they have their point of view, which is just as valid as anybody else’s—demand better pension rights, the Government jump to it, and we get Lords amendment 11 and pages of consequentials. When transsexual activists—not aggressive; they have a right to their view—demand changes to the Bill, the Government jump to it, and we get Lords amendment 44 and all that goes with it. When humanist activists—not aggressive; they have a right to their point of view—demand the right to humanist weddings, the Government jump to it, and we get Lords amendment 10 and pages more like it. However, when people who believe in traditional marriage demand better protections, simply so that they cannot be mistreated for failing to support same-sex marriage, the Government harden their heart, close their mind and refuse to do a thing.
I know some people think that this will all go away after the Bill becomes an Act in the next few days. They wish it would for political reasons, but by the time of the next general election, we will have a whole catalogue of new cases like that of Adrian Smith and his Facebook page, and the Wimbledon street preacher who got locked in a cell for hours for his sermon on 1 Thessalonians. We will have teachers—such as the teachers Lord Dear referred to in his speeches in the Lords—being ordered to teach that their own views on marriage amount to nothing but bigotry. And the electorate will hold us accountable for doing nothing to help them.
First, I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) and my hon. Friends the Members for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) for the hard work they have put in, particularly on the amendments dealing with humanism and pensions. I also commend their collaboration with the Government Front-Bench teams here and in the House of Lords. People often hear about conflict in Parliament, but not about the good work that goes on behind the scenes.
I do not want anything to slow the Bill’s progress on to the statute book or to delay people celebrating same-sex marriage, but a review of both humanist weddings and pensions seems a sensible way forward. I have witnessed the excellent way in which humanist celebrants can help people at funerals—a sensitive situation, particularly for those with no religious beliefs who do not really wish to engage with such beliefs at those sensitive moments. Councillor friends of mine, instead of going to a civic wedding ceremony in a chapel or a church, decided to have a humanist ceremony, which was more in keeping with their beliefs, much more honest and less hypocritical than using a chapel simply for the day of that civic ceremony. Humanist marriage ceremonies fall exactly into that category—offering an opportunity for some depth and consideration, without having to adopt some form of religious belief in a rather hypocritical and shallow way.
Having made such arguments on Report, I would like to record how delighted I am that the amendments on humanist weddings are to be included in the Bill. They will be as significant a part of the Bill as the same-sex marriage proposals. Many people will be affected, and I am delighted that the Government conceded the point in the other place.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution.
Moving on to pensions and survivor benefits, again, we do not want to do anything to delay the Bill, but we want a review. It is a complex subject, and people have made wild estimates about the costs. They seem to forget that what is paid out often comes back, to some degree, in the form of taxation, so the situation is nothing like as simple as it might sound. The principle that those who have contributed have the right to the same benefits—whether they are in a same-sex or an opposite-sex marriage—is absolutely fundamental. We certainly want to make sure that that is where we get to. It will take time; it will need working out; it will need costing; it will need phasing in—but the important thing is the principle. We really want to see the review.
I support amendment 10, on humanist marriage ceremonies, and amendment 11 and related provisions, on the pension review, and I very much hope we can celebrate the passage of this Bill tonight.
First, I pay tribute to both Front-Bench teams—both here and in the other place—for how they have steered the Bill through. I visited the other place and was quite impressed with the quality of the debate and its calmness.
On amendment 11, it is worth revisiting why the pension inequality has to be addressed. The inequality between survivor benefits of civil partners and married couples is simply not sustainable, but it is worth repeating that this issue relates to contracted-in schemes. The key point is that for a man or woman in what some would call a traditional marriage, the pension rights in the event of the partner’s death go back to the date the pension scheme was joined. If, however, someone is a surviving civil partner, even though the partner might have been in the scheme for 20 years, the pension rights go back only to the date when civil partnerships became law. I must point out that this is not just a fractional difference. In the example of John Walker, his civil partner would get a surviving pension of £500 a year. If the civil partnership were dissolved and he married a woman, she would be entitled to £41,000 a year in the form of a widow’s pension. That discrimination is simply not defensible.
The important message to remember is that although survivor benefits are currently unequal, contribution rates are not. Two men—one straight, one gay—both pay in at the same contribution rate. If their contribution rate is not determined by their sexuality, why should their pension be?
The bottom line is that if contributions are equal, pension benefits should be equal too. I welcome the review, because we can get to the bottom of how the figures were determined. As has been mentioned before, neither the Library nor the National Association of Pension Funds can help to identify the schemes. We do not know where the figure has come from. That is why the review is crucial, and the evidence session held by the Select Committee on Work and Pensions will add to the debate.
The House has spoken resoundingly on the issue, not once but twice. The other place spoke resoundingly in rejecting unhelpful amendments, and last night the Bill passed without a vote. Whatever personal objections colleagues have and however sincerely they are held, there comes a time when opponents have to bow their head to the will of this House and give way graciously.
Finally, I thank the Government for the Bill. When it receives Royal Assent, we will be helping to build a more tolerant society. We are saying to people tonight, “Whoever you are, whoever you love, you are respected and valued as an equal member of our society.” Members can go home tonight knowing that for once we have done some good and for once we have made a difference. I look forward to issuing wedding invitations in due course.
I am so pleased that tonight we will pass this Bill, which is clearly good news for the many gay couples across our country who want to get married. I also believe that it will be very good news to people in other countries—those lesbian and gay people who have to face unacceptable degrees of persecution every day of their lives. Members should make no mistake about it: there will be Commonwealth countries watching what we do tonight, and if we improve the lives of people who are treated unacceptably in those countries, we will have done a great good.
I do not know whether, in the short time remaining, I will be able to answer the points about the so-called chill, but I want to. We are not dealing with hypotheticals. Let us consider Catholic Spain, a country that for several years now has allowed the marriage of gay couples. I think there have been about 22,000 such marriages, yet not a single case has been brought to the European Court of Human Rights concerning a gay couple who wish to be married in church—
Two hours having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on consideration of Lords amendments, the debate was interrupted (Programme Order, this day).
The Speaker put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair (Standing Order No. 83F), That this House agrees with Lords amendment 1.
Question agreed to.
Lords amendment 1 accordingly agreed to.
Lords amendments 2 to 55 agreed to, with Commons financial privileges waived in respect of Lords amendments 10, 11, 15, 16, 26, 27, 34, 54 and 55.