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Equal Marriage Consultation

Volume 741: debated on Tuesday 11 December 2012


My Lords, with the leave of the House I will repeat a Statement given by my right honourable friend the Minister for Women and Equalities in another place earlier today.

“With permission, I would like to make a Statement on the government proposals to enable same-sex couples to marry. Not so long ago, Mr Speaker, talk of marriage as one of the building blocks of society was dismissed by some as out of date. Of course, those of us in this House who have taken a closer interest know that marriage remains something which most people aspire to. So, far from being a peripheral issue, the future of marriage is something that should concern us all. Today we are setting out how the Government will extend marriage to same-sex couples.

This is a consultation that has been the subject of much debate within the House and outside it. I am immensely grateful to the many honourable Members who have taken the time to discuss these proposals with me, adding their voices to the 19 petitions received by the Government and the record 228,000 individuals and organisations who responded to the consultation.

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

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

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

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

I will go into the detail of those locks, but before I do that I want to reiterate my comments yesterday concerning Europe. I know that many honourable Members are worried that European courts will force religious organisations to conduct same-sex marriage. The law is complex but that complexity is absolutely no excuse for misunderstanding the facts. The case law of the European Court of Human Rights and the rights as set out in the European Convention on Human Rights put protection of religious belief in this matter beyond doubt.

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

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

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

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

I feel it is important also to directly address other concerns raised by religious institutions. Other legal cases, including provision of services such as bed and breakfast or the wearing of religious symbols, have no bearing on the legal situation regarding marriage. This is because, for most religions, marriage is a commitment made before God; it is at the heart of religious belief. There is clear protection under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights and there is clarity in case law that the European Court of Human Rights considers same-sex marriage a matter for each member state.

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

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

That concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her Statement and the Government for bringing forward these proposals, which are consistent with the progressive changes that my Government carried through over many years. The Minister can expect our support in carrying forward this enlightened legislation to make it possible for couples who love each other and want to make a long-term commitment to each other to be able to marry regardless of their gender or sexuality. Labour strongly agrees that gay and lesbian couples should have an equal right to marriage. Same-sex couples deserve the same recognition from the state and society as anyone else. I wholeheartedly agree with the Minister that extending marriage to same-sex couples strengthens, not weakens, the institution.

Labour’s introduction of civil partnerships faced some opposition at the time, but much progress has been made in fighting discrimination in the past few years. We need to continue progress on lesbian and gay equality, and same-sex marriage is an important step. Indeed, freedom of religion is also important. No one is proposing that churches should be obliged to hold same-sex marriages. Religious freedom is guaranteed in law and both the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights put the protection of religious belief beyond doubt.

Religious marriages are a matter for each church, religious organisation or denomination, not for the Government. We expect the Bill to rule out any church or individual minister being required to perform same-sex marriages and that the protection of religious freedom will be double-locked or double-double-locked, as set out in the Bill. However, freedom of religion also means that we support those churches and faiths that wish to hold same-sex marriage ceremonies in being able to do so, including the Quakers, the Unitarians, Liberal Judaism and Reform Judaism. The Government initially ruled this out in their consultation but, thanks to the campaigns that have been waged, I am happy to see that they have changed their mind and that these provisions may now be included.

Labour’s Front-Bench equalities team has been supportive of permissive legislation which would allow those religious organisations that want it the opportunity to celebrate same-sex marriage ceremonies. This has precedent in Section 6 of the Civil Partnership Act 2004, amended by Section 202 of the Equality Act 2010—now known in this House as the Waheed Alli amendment—which allows religious organisations to host civil partnerships on their premises if they wish.

Some religious leaders have expressed opposition even to proposals for same-sex civil marriage. Although we respect their right to hold such views, we do not agree with them. There was similar opposition to civil partnerships when Labour introduced them seven years ago, yet many people of all faiths now respect and support civil partnerships. I hope that, over time, the Church of England, among others, will take as enlightened a view of this matter and perhaps consider permissive legislation of its own; although I have to say that, after the vote on women bishops, I am not holding my breath.

Labour made huge progress on equality over 13 years in government. As well as introducing civil partnerships, we created an equal age of consent, ended the ban on LGBT people serving in our Armed Forces, increased sentences for hate crimes and outlawed discrimination in goods and services. Between 1997 and 2010, the Labour Government did more for the advancement of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality than any other Government in British history.

The Minister is correct: marriage is not a static institution. It has, rightly, changed many times over the years to make it relevant to the society it serves. Changes include, for example, the introduction of non-religious, civil marriages in the 1830s, allowing married women to own property in the 1880s and outlawing rape in marriage in the 1990s. Freedom of religion is extremely important. No one is proposing that religious organisations should be obliged to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies.

I listened with interest, as did the Minister, to the debate on the Statement in the Commons. I offer my sympathy to the noble Baroness and some of her colleagues over some comments made by Conservative Members of the House of Commons. One of them said that 98% of his constituents were opposed to this proposed legislation. Quite how he knows that, I am unable to say. I hope that noble Lords behind the Minister will take a more enlightened view of these proposals. The Minister has, unsurprisingly, dwelt on the safeguards. I hope that the Government will not be defensive over the Bill; they should be proud of it.

How will this legislation work? Will the people who currently have civil partnerships be able to, as it were, convert to a civil or religious marriage? How will they do that and will there be any constraints or time limits? The Government have made available their response to the consultation but will they make available its results?

The second lock mentioned by the Minister concerned amending the Equality Act, but I wonder whether, and why, this is necessary. My understanding is that this matter is already covered precisely in that Act.

In conclusion, the Labour Party strongly supports same-sex marriage. People who love each other and want to make a long-term commitment to each other should be able to get married. As a society, we should support and celebrate that commitment. We are pleased and we welcome the fact that the Government have gone further than they originally intended and that they will allow religious organisations that want to celebrate same-sex marriage the chance to do so.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, for her support. I recognise that her Government did much to enhance equality in this country during their time in office, and I am pleased that we are able to do more and that we have her support in doing so. However, I do not want to polarise this debate. I and the Government have absolute respect for religious freedoms and those who object to same-sex marriage on principled grounds. I want people to feel able to express any concerns that they may have or to raise questions, because I think that many people want to support same-sex marriage and will do so if they can be reassured that religious freedoms are protected. I certainly see that as my responsibility.

The noble Baroness asked a few questions, which I am happy to respond to. On her point about the conversion of civil partnerships to civil marriages, it is certainly our intention to propose in the Bill that the 50,000 or more people who have entered into a civil partnership since that was enacted will be able to convert it to a marriage. There will be a process for them to follow, and I am pleased to confirm that it will not be time-limited.

The noble Baroness also asked about the consultation responses. Today we have published the Government’s response to the consultation document, and that provides some details of those responses. Clearly, having received more than 228,000 responses, it is not our plan to publish all of them individually, but I hope that the details of the consultation document will provide the sort of information that noble Lords will be interested in.

She also asked about the Equality Act and why it was necessary for us to amend it, as we have proposed as part of the quadruple lock. This is necessary because we need to introduce a safeguard specific to the conducting of same-sex marriages so that anyone, such as a member of a religious faith, who chooses not to do so on religious grounds is not in any way at risk of any kind of legal challenge.

I think that covers all the points that the noble Baroness raised. I restate that obviously I am here to respond to questions. I hope that all noble Lords will feel free to express any views and that they will be reassured that those views will be respected today.

My Lords, I remind noble Lords that Statements are a time for brief comments and questions. Could noble Lords please show consideration to each other to enable as many as possible to contribute?

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating this measured and very welcome Statement. I hope that she will understand that many of us in this House were brought up to believe that all people are equal in the sight of God, and that some of us are deeply saddened that some churches have given up their responsibility of being at the forefront in promoting equal opportunity.

That being so, I ask the noble Baroness—somewhat unusually for me—to convey to the Government my personal thanks for the thoughtful and sensitive way in which they are dealing with this matter, especially in providing the churches that want them with a remarkable range of safeguards, while the rest of us can go on enjoying and celebrating love and lifelong commitment among adults who love and care for each other.

I am very grateful to the noble Lord for his support and also for his comments about the way in which we are bringing forward these proposals. I hope that he will forgive me if I do not seek to respond on behalf of the right reverend Prelates in the House today and I am sure that he would not expect me to.

My Lords, those of us on these Benches entirely share the view of the noble Lord, Lord Laming, that we are all equal in the eyes of God. That is why many of us supported civil partnerships, as we believe that the rights and obligations that flow to those who wish formally to mark and celebrate their commitment to each other should not be denied to people simply because of their sexuality.

However, civil partnerships, while conferring virtually the same legal benefits, are not the same as marriage. Marriage is not the property of the Government, nor is it the property of the church. While the forms and legalities around marriage have evolved over time, as the Minister has pointed out, one fundamental feature has remained the same throughout—that marriage is a union of one man and one woman. It is a social institution that predates both church and state and has been the glue that has bound countless successive societies together.

Does the Minister recognise that our concern here is not primarily religious conscience or the protection of the Church of England’s position but, rather, a more fundamental concern for stable communities? Can she assure us that teachers in church schools, for example, will not be disciplined for upholding traditional religious teaching? Can she assure the House that, in spite of the accelerated pace of this process, proper time, even over a Christmas holiday, will be given for adequate consultation with the Church of England’s canon lawyers on the legislative drafting? Can she assure us that the great majority of members of the Church of England and other faiths will not be labelled as prejudiced against gay people for taking a traditional stand?

Perhaps most troubling is the fact that the Government and the Opposition have together in proceeding with this measure led to division not only within the country, where polls consistently show that around half the population is against this change, but also between the political class and the vast majority of practising religious people. What plans do the Government have for working towards some greater degree of consensus on this matter?

My Lords, I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate for setting out his view on behalf of the church. I acknowledge that people have concerns about some of these proposals, but the safeguards that we are putting in place to protect religious freedoms are there directly to address those concerns. We are not in any way redefining how religious organisations see marriage. Nothing that we are proposing affects any religious faith or teaching in a faith. We are not changing society. We are bringing forward changes to reflect society as it is. We are seeking to do so in a way that is respectful and understanding of different views.

The right reverend Prelate asked me about teachers and faith schools. I can reassure him that nothing that we are doing in this legislation will bring about any change to the approach for teaching in schools. A faith school would be able to continue to describe its belief that marriage is between a man and a woman while recognising that same-sex couples can marry.

The right reverend Prelate asked me about allowing proper time for consultation with canon lawyers. I can absolutely give him that assurance. It is our intention to make sure that we have watertight legislation that addresses all the concerns that religious faiths may have.

Finally, I say to the right reverend Prelate and to all Members of this House that there is absolutely no way that we as a Government would seek to label anybody who did not support same-sex marriage as prejudiced. We are trying to make marriage available in civil ceremonies to same-sex couples and to protect the religious freedoms that are rightly there for all faiths to continue to act in accordance with their beliefs, and we would not seek to change that in any way.

My Lords, will the Minister accept from these Benches our wholehearted congratulations on and support for this Bill? It was, of course, we who began civil partnerships though my Private Member’s Bill, which was taken over by the Labour Government. This is a further example of progress. The Act of Uniformity in the 17th century forbade religious marriages of any kind except those in the Anglican faith. It was in the 19th century that that began to change through Lord Brougham’s Bill of 1855. This is a further step forward. Will the Minister accept from me that the safeguards that she has just mentioned will be wholly compatible with the European Convention and will pass full muster before the European Court of Human Rights if anyone was silly enough to take a case there?

I am grateful to the noble Lord for his support, and I recognise what he has done over many years to bring forward the rights of others and to ensure that we continue to progress equality in this country. I am also grateful to him for his very clear statement about the compatibility of the safeguards with the European Court of Human Rights.

My Lords, I thank the previous Government, who enabled my husband and I to have the same legal rights as married couples. I welcome this next small step towards equal marriage and full equality under the law. My husband and I have been through two civil partnerships in recent times on the path towards equal marriage, and I very much welcome the cross-party support for this move. Having gone through a GLC civil partnership and a civil partnership under the law, my husband is determined that we have a proper marriage and a full ceremony in the local town hall. Will the Minister be able to guarantee that for me and my husband?

I am very grateful to the noble Lord for setting out why he feels as strongly as he does about this. I am pleased to be able to confirm to him that if the Bill passes through Parliament and becomes an Act, not only will he be able to marry in the local town hall but he will be able to convert his civil partnership into a marriage and will legally be able to call his partner his husband.

As a practising Catholic I wholly support the church’s teaching on marriage, but I am also pleased that the Government have decided to bring in this Bill. The right reverend Prelate is right to say that marriage is not owned by either the state or the church. It is owned by humanity. Surely our understanding of sexual relationships and sexuality should lead us to understand that there is an extension of natural law from that understanding. That extension should lead us to be prepared in the state to allow people of the same sex to marry. It is wrong to suggest that there is something unnatural for them to wish to take this step. Therefore, I congratulate the Minister on repeating the Statement. I think she will have considerable support from Christians of all denominations, not least from Catholics.

I am very grateful to my noble friend for his remarks and support. He has very eloquently described why this is an important step forward and why—with the right safeguards in place to protect religious freedoms—we will be able to bring forward a right that many people should feel is theirs and which they can enjoy.

Like others in the Labour Party, I declare my support for this measure, which is liberal, humane and in accordance with the progressive consensus in our society, particularly among young people. This is not a young House and it is important that we strike a chord with younger people.

However, the Statement contained a quite absurd historical error: it referred to the established church in England and Wales. In Wales, the church has been disestablished since 1920. I declare an interest as the only living author of a book on that subject, and I hope I did not put quill to parchment in vain. I just wonder what the situation will be in Wales.

As the noble Lord was speaking, my heart started to miss a beat. I only hope that I read out a version that had not been corrected by my right honourable friend. I am absolutely clear about the noble Lord’s point that the Church in Wales is disestablished now, but the safeguards apply to the Church in Wales as they do to the Church of England because the Church in Wales has a duty to marriage in the same way that the Church of England has. Therefore, all limbs of those safeguards will apply to the Church in Wales.

Is the Minister aware that, notwithstanding the official position of the Church of England on this, a good number of its members warmly welcome the Government’s position on this? Is she aware that privately, a fair number of individual bishops in the Church of England also support it, but are not able to say so publicly at the moment because of the political situation in which the Church of England now finds itself?

I am grateful to the noble and right reverend Lord for making those points. I obviously note them, but I leave it to the church to comment on its own position on this matter.

May I enter a slightly dissenting note in what otherwise appears to be a consensus? I fully accept the merits of civil partnership in our society, but are the Government aware that in moving towards this legislation, they will create two distinct and potentially divisive forms of marriage—statutory marriage on the one hand, which this legislation will create, and real marriage between a man and a woman on the other, which cannot be redefined by statute any more than night can be redefined as day by statute, or fiction as fact?

There is only one form of marriage and what we are setting out here is that it will remain a matter for religious faiths as to how they define marriage within their own faith. There is only one legal type of marriage and that will apply both to couples of opposite sexes as well as to couples of the same sex.

My Lords, notwithstanding what was said by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, and my noble friend Lord Deben, the fact is that for the majority of Christians in this country, at the heart of their religious belief is the belief that marriage is between a man and a woman. In that context, can the Minister assure us, first, that the 500,000 people who signed the petition that was reported in today’s press will be taken into account? Secondly, will she assure us that every member of Her Majesty’s Government, as well as Back-Benchers, will have a free vote on this issue?

I have tried to make clear that in bringing forward our proposals we recognise and respect the religious freedoms of those who are committed to their faith and the position that their respective faiths take with regard to marriage. Perhaps it is worth reminding my noble friend that the consultation was about how we bring about same-sex marriage and not about whether we should. The huge response was the largest that we have ever had to a consultation. In the consultation document that has been published today, we are very clear that in addition to the 228,000 who responded many others signed their names to a petition. We are firmly of the view that we are moving forward in the right way and taking account of everyone’s position on this. On my noble friend’s final point, I can confirm again that it will be a free vote.

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that a very significant element in marriage concerns children? Will she give an assurance that the position of adopted children in single-sex marriages will not be changed for either better or worse by a partnership entering into a civil marriage?

We have been clear that what we are bringing forward will focus on allowing same-sex couples to marry. That is the purpose of this legislation and where the change in legislation will occur. There will be no impact on any adoption laws whatever.

My Lords, where exactly did the pressure come from which has persuaded the Government that this proposal is a sensible, or even a desirable, thing to do? Why are they taking this further, beyond what I understand is already a very good provision that allows for civil partnerships to receive a blessing in the church? The union can therefore be blessed in the sight of God in a place of religion. Surely it is not necessary to go further than that. In proposing to do this, are the Government not requiring a complete redefinition of marriage as laid down in the Church of England?

I understand the points made by my noble friend. I can only restate what I have already said. As regards the Church of England or any religious faith, we are putting in place safeguards to prevent any change to their religious definition of marriage.

As to why we are doing this and why it is different from civil partnerships and allowing civil partnerships to take place on religious premises, while civil partnerships were a significant step forward, and were embraced and welcomed by many people, especially those who have taken advantage of a civil partnership, there is still a distinction between a civil partnership and marriage. We believe that marriage should be available and accessible to two people who love each other, and who want to spend their lives together, and that they should not be discriminated against just because they are of the same sex. That is why we believe that it is right that a same-sex couple should be able to marry and to define themselves legally as married, as do other people who have the same feelings for the one they love.

Apart from the name, what difference is there to be between a civil partnership, as enacted during the tenure of the previous Government, and the proposals made here?

The key issue is that two people of the same sex will be legally defined as married in the same way as two people of the opposite sex. There will be no difference in the definition of their relationship in future.