My Lords, it is a huge privilege to be leading on this important Bill, which will make marriage of same-sex couples lawful in England and Wales. I will go into detail shortly, but I want to be clear from the outset that this Bill is not just about allowing same-sex couples to marry; it is also about protecting and promoting religious freedom. It is not often that we get to debate and decide legislation that affects people’s lives so directly. This Bill addresses things that matter to all of us: our personal freedoms, our faith in what we believe, and the acceptance of who we are and who we love. Perhaps I should declare from the outset that I am not married, and as long as George Clooney is still available I am prepared to wait. But even though I am single—and I of all people understand that not everyone wants to get married—I believe in the institution of marriage.
Like many other people, whether married or not, I believe marriage to be one of the fundamental building blocks of a strong society because of the stability, continuity and security that it promotes. I admire couples who make the big decision to marry. Marriage remains, as it has for centuries, the way in which most people choose to declare their commitment publicly and permanently to the person they love. When we hear two people exchange their marriage vows, whether in a place of worship or at a register office, we know that we are witnessing a couple commit to the kind of values that we associate with the special enterprise of shared endeavour—loyalty, trust, honesty and forgiveness. We know that through marriage existing families are extended, as is their commitment and support to new family members. We think that is a good thing, and any of us can choose to do this—unless, of course, we happen to love someone of the same sex. This Government think that is wrong, and we want to put it right. So much do we believe in marriage and its importance to our society, we want all couples, whether gay or straight, who are prepared to affirm publicly their commitment to each other and all the responsibility and joy that comes with it, to be free to marry.
Some people argue that civil partnerships have provided same-sex couples with equality already, and allowing them to marry is not needed. They are right that civil partnerships provided equivalent legal rights. Indeed, the progress made by the last Labour Government in advancing gay rights was massive, and I salute them for all that they achieved. I am grateful to the Labour Front Bench for supporting this Bill. But in 2004, Parliament did not provide same-sex couples with the equal opportunity to marriage itself; back then, we could not conceive that society would allow it. So instead a separate legal regime was established just for same-sex couples. Marriage, the exchange of vows, and all that that means, remained available only to men and women prepared to make that commitment to each other. Less than 10 years on, independent polling, all of which is included in the House of Commons Library research paper on the Bill, shows that the majority of people in this country are now ready to open up marriage to everyone. Indeed, support is growing all the time, and we are not alone; change is happening around the world.
As to my own party’s position, in 2006, at the first Conservative Party conference after he became leader, David Cameron voiced his support for marriage and equated the commitment of same-sex couples with that of opposite-sex couples. In 2010, the Conservative Party made it clear that it would consider the case for equal marriage in its document A Contract for Equalities, which was published alongside the election manifesto. In 2011, David Cameron said, to wide applause at the Conservative Party conference, that he supported same-sex marriage because he is a Conservative. This coalition Government think that now is the right time to make this change.
The Government have decided to take this step to allow same-sex couples to marry because we believe that doing so really matters. Gay and lesbian couples being allowed to marry—to join the institution that they, too, recognise as important—matters because it marks the final acceptance of who they are. Allowing same-sex couples to marry and not separating them out from the rest of society matters to families. For parents especially, it means peace of mind. A gay son or daughter will be able to aspire to the same things as their straight brother or sister and be recognised and respected equally.
Allowing same-sex couples to marry also matters to all of us who believe in the institution of marriage. Marriage, this vital element of our social fabric, stands a much safer chance of remaining important to future generations if we make sure that it reflects modern society. We believe that marriage will become nothing but stronger if we open the doors to couples who are currently excluded only because they happen to love someone of the same sex.
The Bill provides a new freedom for same-sex couples to marry, but theirs is not the only freedom that concerns us. The Bill also protects and promotes religious freedom. That is why, as well as allowing same-sex couples to marry in civil ceremonies—in register offices and approved premises such as hotels—the Bill takes an entirely permissive approach to religious marriage ceremonies. It will be for religious organisations to decide for themselves whether they wish to marry same-sex couples according to their rites. Some have already said that they will; these include the liberal Jews, the Quakers and the Unitarians. In this way, the religious freedom of these organisations and perhaps others in the future is promoted by this Bill. Equally, no religious organisation or individual can be forced to conduct or participate in a religious marriage ceremony of a same-sex couple. The religious freedom of those organisations and individuals is protected. The Government’s public consultation in 2012, which prompted nearly 230,000 responses and became the largest of its kind ever, was important in informing our approach. Since we published our proposals in December last year, we have discussed this permissive approach with a wide range of religious organisations, and I am pleased to report that they are generally content with the protection provided in the Bill.
The Bill has been carefully crafted to contain each element of the quadruple lock which the Government committed to last December and which I outlined to this House when I repeated the Statement by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State at the time. Because it is so important, I will explain the quadruple lock again. First, it ensures that the Bill states explicitly that no religious organisation or individual minister can be compelled to marry same-sex couples or to permit such a marriage to take place on their premises; it provides an opt-in system for religious organisations which wish to conduct marriages for same-sex couples; it amends the Equality Act 2010 so that it is not unlawful discrimination for a religious organisation or individual minister to refuse to marry a same-sex couple; it ensures that the duty on the clergy of the Church of England and the Church in Wales to marry parishioners will not extend to same-sex couples, and that Anglican canon law, which says that marriage is a union for life of one man with one woman, is unaffected.
I turn now to other rights that we all have and will continue to have because they are not affected by the Bill, most specifically the right to freedom of expression. Some people are concerned that the Bill will impact on freedom of speech and that people such as teachers—or, indeed, anyone while at work—will not be able to criticise same-sex marriage. I can reassure the House that this Bill does not in any way affect the perfectly legitimate expression of the perfectly legitimate belief that marriage should only be between a man and a woman. Teachers will be expected to teach the factual and legal position when teaching about marriage, as with any area of the curriculum, but they will not be expected to promote or endorse views that go against their own beliefs. It will be unlawful to dismiss a teacher purely for doing so.
That said, and as noble Lords would expect, the expression of personal beliefs should be done in a professional way and not in a way that would be inappropriate or insensitive to pupils, some of whom may be gay, transgender or the children of a same-sex couple. We are clear that the existing protections for teachers are sound. However, we are, of course, aware that these concerns exist. As the Minister for Sport and Tourism explained in the other place, we are continuing to discuss those concerns further with religious groups to ensure that we have done all we can to put the position beyond doubt. The same is true for employees generally and what they say about same-sex marriage, whether at work or not.
Freedom to express beliefs about marriage is not affected by this Bill. Discriminating against someone because they believe, or express the view, that marriage should be between a man and a woman only is unlawful under the Equality Act 2010. Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights also guarantees the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. At the same time, I must make it equally clear that it is not acceptable for an employee to act in an offensive or discriminatory way because of someone’s sexual orientation. It is wholly wrong to persecute someone for being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. It is not wrong for someone to say that they do not believe in same-sex marriage. Some people have also expressed concerns that the religious protections in the Bill could be successfully challenged, whether before domestic courts or the European Court of Human Rights. We are confident that the protections are robust and effective, but rather than my talking about this in detail now, other noble Lords far more expert than I in these legal matters will no doubt wish to offer their views during the debate.
I turn to other aspects of the Bill and to some of the changes already made during its passage in response to our engagement with religious organisations and others. Part 1 allows same-sex couples to marry and provides the religious freedoms and protections I have already mentioned. Part 2 enables an individual to change their legal gender without having to end their marriage. Part 2 also contains an important new clause—Clause 14—added during Commons Report stage by a government amendment. This requires the Secretary of State to arrange for a review of the options and future of civil partnerships in England and Wales. With the Government’s agreement, this clause was amended to require that the review will begin as soon as practicable and will include a full public consultation. I am pleased to tell the House that the Government are already preparing for this review and will publish its terms of reference before Committee.
Other changes made by the Government in response to issues raised include fine-tuning the religious protections in specific areas, such as to protect the position of chaplains employed by secular organisations and the Church of England’s ecclesiastical law. We have clarified the arrangements concerning Scotland and Northern Ireland and made changes to improve fairness—for example, in relation to pension rights where a married partner has changed legal gender. Even though the Government have already made changes to the Bill, we continue to listen to concerns and are, of course, willing to consider further changes if necessary to make the protections clearer. Indeed, I should say that I, along with my noble and learned friend Lord Wallace of Tankerness, my noble friend Lady Northover and the Bill team officials, with all of whom I have the pleasure of working, will be glad to listen to the concerns of Peers and others with an interest in the Bill.
I speak in support of same-sex couples who want the opportunity to marry because, very simply, this Government consider their love and commitment to be no different from that of opposite-sex couples. We believe that same-sex couples should be able to marry if they want to, and that extending that choice is the right thing to do for them and for the future of marriage. If we want future generations to support marriage, we need the institution to reflect our modern inclusive society. I know that many noble Lords will also speak in support of the Bill today and I am grateful to them, but I also respect those who disagree with me. I understand that many who do not support same-sex marriage do so on the grounds of religious principle. To them, I would point to the religious freedoms which the Bill protects and promotes and say this: no religion or faith will be required to change its doctrines or practices because of the Bill if it chooses not to.
I also understand that some noble Lords are unsure whether to support this measure for a range of reasons personal to them. We all have the right to move at different paces when faced with change, but to those who feel unsure let me say this: same-sex marriage is new and different from what we have known up to now and I am not trying to say it is not. However, this change—allowing same-sex couples to marry—will not affect the nature or quality of existing marriages or new marriages between men and women. The Bill simply extends the opportunity for that same quality to be shared by all couples who honour the institution and desire it for themselves.
The Bill is a force for good and I commend it to the House. I beg to move.
Amendment to the Motion
My Lords, I should like to thank the Minister for setting out the Government’s position on what is, by any stretch of the imagination, a contentious Bill.
“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory’, Alice said. Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’ But ‘glory’ doesn't mean ‘a nice knock-down argument’, Alice objected. When I use a word, Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less”.
I would suggest that if we substitute the word “marriage” for “glory” we get somewhere very close to the essence of today’s debate. As Humpty Dumpty might have said: “There’s a nice knock-down argument for you. Marriage means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less”.
If we move away from Lewis Carroll’s Alice and back through the looking glass, we find ourselves in a world where an ill considered Bill seeks to overturn centuries of tradition, heedless of public opinion and the views of religious leaders and blind to the laws of unintended consequences. It seeks to alter totally the concept of marriage as we have always known it, it seeks to divide a nation with an argument that hides behind the concept of equality when in reality it is about sameness, and it stands on its head all considerations of electoral mandate.
I am conscious that around 90 speakers await their turn to speak today and tomorrow so I will deal only very briefly with the essential elements of the arguments against the Bill but take, in turn, four things: the concept of the rule of the majority; the impact of the Bill on society; the flawed process that it has undergone so far; and, last but by no means least, the question of whether it is proper or appropriate to vote the Bill down at Second Reading.
First, I refer to the question of the extent to which a civilised society should accede to the wishes or the desires of a very small minority in its midst. In the debate on the humble Address on 9 May this year, an impassioned reference was made to the plight of homosexuals in Uganda and in other repressive regimes. This seemed to suggest that, if we were to defeat the Bill, this country could quickly regress to a state something approaching that in Uganda and elsewhere where homophobia is prevalent. Nothing could be more fanciful and nothing could be further from the truth. Like many other Members of your Lordships’ House, I have, for many years, championed the extension and the protection of minority rights, including homosexual rights and equality, and I have seen and applauded this country’s change of attitude towards homosexuality, from thinly veiled intolerance 50 years or so ago to a position of understanding and acceptance today.
With the introduction of civil partnerships, we have seen the legal rights of homosexual couples put on a par with those in a conventional marriage, with all the financial benefits available to both groupings. Indeed, those in a homosexual civil partnership are significantly better off in that respect than family members who live together without the benefits of such a partnership. Doubtless, we shall hear more of that as the debate progresses—more about the two sisters living together or the elderly parent and the unmarried daughter in the same household. All those are of course unable to enjoy the same financial benefits available to those in civil partnerships. In that respect, homosexual equality has outstripped equality for those in family relationships.
However, this part of the argument is much more about the lengths to which a society should go in order to embrace the demands from very small minorities. The utilitarian approach of Jeremy Bentham—the greatest good for the greatest number, where a simple majority carries the day—was challenged first by John Stuart Mill and then by other theological and jurisprudential writers in the 19th century. Very sensibly, it has been moderated over the years to a point where any society wishing to be thought of as civilised, tolerant and mature is judged by the degree to which it can accept minority views, even when those views fail to accord absolutely to the norms and views of the majority. However, there must come a point when, provided full equality for all under the law is guaranteed—this, I suggest, is perhaps the nub of this argument—the majority view should prevail, especially when the minority is tiny and the overwhelming majority is affronted. It is all a question of balance, wisely, and not least sensitively, applied.
The present danger of redefining marriage could well turn out to be counterproductive because tolerance can be overstretched. Look to contemporary France for an example. The similarities with this country are numerous. France has much the same population as our own, is still coming to terms with a revised role in the world, has an old and enduring national religion, has financial problems, and its leadership is questioned. Same-sex marriage has recently been forced through the French parliamentary process, with the result that mass demonstrations, and occasionally riots, have taken place in major cities in that country. Worse, the incidence of serious homophobic violence has markedly increased. I do not foresee violent street demonstrations in this country but I fear that the Bill, should it become law, could well create such opposition to homosexuals in general that the climate of tolerance and acceptance in this country that we have all championed, supported and seen flourish over the years could well be set back by decades—certainly for a long time.
Let me move on. In headline form only, let me pose a question or two. What is the impact of the proposed legislation on society? A change in the law would herald uncertainty in a number of areas, rather than certainty, and I will touch only briefly on those aspects now, confident that the other 90 or so speakers who follow me will explore some of these issues in much greater depth. Marriage between a man and a woman has been a part of life for centuries, predating nation, church and law. The lifelong commitment of a man and a woman is part of our history and culture. Evidence abroad, for example in Spain, shows that a redefinition of marriage actually undermines support for marriage in the wider society. There, marriage rates have plummeted. Noble Lords may advance their own theories as to why this has occurred in Spain and elsewhere but the facts are there for all to see and it is reasonable to conclude that redefining marriage is a contributory factor.
In the field of education very real fears exist that teachers who fail to endorse same-sex marriage could be dismissed. The Minister touched on this and other similar issues. Government reassurances that this will not be the case have been challenged as naive by leading counsel. Parents will not have a legal right to withdraw children from lessons that endorse same-sex marriage in the curriculum. The effect on schools will undoubtedly be divisive, and we should reflect on the fact that calls have already been made for children to act out gay weddings in class. I have to hand an opinion by leading counsel, prominent in employment law, who concludes that the Bill would create a duty to promote or endorse and not just to explain the new definition of marriage in sex education. Furthermore, he advises that schools could discipline teachers for failing to teach positively about same-sex marriage alongside opposite sex marriage.
Employment law is not likely to protect those who, as a matter of conscience, refuse to endorse the new law. Some noble Lords from the legal profession will want to expand their opinions on this at length. The fact that matters such as this are so strongly disputed, with leading counsel on both sides of the argument, must show that there is legitimate concern that cannot be shrugged off by mere rhetoric.
The well-being of children within marriage is a matter of very serious concern, certainly for those who accept the view that the best family grouping in which to grow up is a stable environment with two married parents, one of each sex. These and other major factors will be hotly debated today and tomorrow and they will highlight the sharp divisions that exist on almost every aspect of this Bill.
So if divisions exist—and they do—we should ask to what extent the Government have considered the totality of the problem. In a matter as fundamentally important and potentially so contentious as this, one could reasonably have expected any Government with pretentions at governing by consensus to have conducted deep and thoughtful research before drafting legislation. This Bill is hallmarked by the very lack of such an approach. A royal commission, or other similar learned group, might have been expected to call on the very best minds from the fields of theology, philosophy, sociology, jurisprudence and finance in order to take a long look at all the implications, to identify the pros and cons and to make mature recommendations. The Government did nothing of the sort. Instead, they seem to have relied on old, often partial, research and opinion that give only a fragmentary picture of the problem. There was no royal commission; no committee of inquiry; no mention of the Bill in any party manifesto prior to the last general election; no report from any parliamentary Select Committee. The Leader of the Conservative Party, questioned on Sky television only three days before the general election, declared that he had no plans for such a Bill. There was no Green Paper, no White Paper and no pre-legislative scrutiny. It was not included in the Queen’s Speech either last year or this year. However, after its introduction a few months ago, the results in the recent local elections were catastrophic. Around 450 seats were lost by the coalition parties, with all the analysis showing that the Bill was a significant factor in the swing of voters away from the main parties.
The Bill’s progress through the House of Commons was inauspicious. Back-Bench contributions at Second Reading were limited to only four minutes. The Government then delegated the Bill to a committee of 19 hand-picked MPs rather than to a Committee of the Whole House. Its membership was stacked 15 to four in favour of the Bill and not a single amendment was accepted by the Government. Committee debates were limited to only five days, in contrast to the Hunting Bill, when the Standing Committee lasted for 14 days.
The main parties announced a free vote, but there is a question mark over the freedom of that vote. In a letter signed by 15 MPs and circulated on 15 May, serious doubts were cast, citing,
“varying degrees of coercion, with threats made, for example, to an MP’s future political career or withdrawal of party support at future elections”.
Therefore, the apparent solid majority for the Bill in the other place must be considered, in part, at least, in that light.
The Government’s consultation exercise was about how to introduce the changes and not whether to do so. To put it bluntly, the results were rigged. The figures given by the Government indicated a total of 228,000 responses, with 53% said to be in agreement with the Bill and 46% against it—about even, tilting slightly towards approval for the Bill. However, that ignored two critical facts. First, the responses in favour were largely collected on the internet—anonymously, with no check as to whether the respondents were resident in the UK and no check on multiple entries from single respondents. Secondly, the Government accepted a signed petition collected by the Coalition for Marriage and arbitrarily counted it as one vote, deliberately ignoring the fact that it contained 509,000 verifiable signatures. That petition has now grown, I am told, to 660,000 signatures, although at the time of its closure there were, as I said, 509,000 verifiable signatures. Had that number of 509,000 been included, as it clearly should have been, it would have shown 83% of respondents against the Bill. That considerable public opposition is borne out by many reliable opinion polls. Some polls of course suggest the opposite but many have failed to make clear the existence of civil partnerships in posing the question to those being polled.
At this stage, I should say that since my name became linked in public with opposition to the Bill and I became something of a lightning conductor in public for all these issues, the number of communications I have received on the matter by e-mail and in my postbag falls just short of 1,000, of which 38—I counted them this morning—are in favour of the Bill and the remaining almost 1,000 are against it. I think that many noble Lords have had very similar results, if not in those numbers, then certainly in proportion.
Opposition from formal religious groups divides on the same lines. Quakers, Unitarians and Liberal Jews of course support the Bill but we should remember that together they represent less than 1% of the religious community. The largest bodies—the Church of England, Roman Catholics, Sikhs, Muslims and others—all adamantly oppose it.
Lastly, I turn to the vote at Second Reading. Understandably, some noble Lords have queried whether it is proper to challenge a Bill in this way at Second Reading in your Lordships’ House. I fully understand that question and I recognise and support the proud and long-standing tradition in this House to take particular care over every aspect of any Bill and to give it a full and fair examination before voting. However, that holds good only in normal circumstances, and the circumstances that we face today are abnormal. I am advised by the clerks that it is perfectly proper to vote on Second Reading. The 2006 Joint Committee on Conventions affirmed that the House of Lords retains the power to reject government Bills in free-vote situations. Votes against a Bill at Second Reading are unusual but they are not unknown. Examples that closely parallel these present circumstances are the War Crimes Bill and the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill, both of which occurred just over 10 years ago but both were free-vote issues without a mandate from a manifesto. The Health and Social Care Bill in October two years ago is the most recent and reliable example.
So if we can do it, and have done it, why oppose the Bill at this stage? Quite simply, I contend that the Bill is in a mess. It is ill thought-through, lacks support in the population as a whole and is likely to antagonise, or even inflame, public opinion. It has nothing to do with equality, which is already in place with civil partnerships, and it attempts to dignify an admittedly very small minority of partnerships with the description “marriage”—a term that has been understood differently for centuries.
If that were not enough, there is more. This House is asked to debate and examine a Bill that has not yet come anywhere near identifying all the consequences of change. The official government estimate of the numbers of amendments to existing legislation that would follow should the Bill become law is, in their words, at least 8,000 and they are still counting. It is no good telling me that there is provision in the Bill to take care of that, because the experience in Argentina, where similar legislation was passed in 2010, is chilling. In a paper provided by Dr Ursula Basset for the Pontificia Universidad Católica Argentina, she explains the changes now being debated in that country, which passed legislation similar to that which is on the table in front of us, in order to establish a redefined civil code. She said:
“It quickly became clear that legalising same-sex marriage required a revolution to our internal law. It impacted laws regulating public order, identity, gender, rules of kinship, filiation, marriage, names, marital property arrangements, divorce, alimony, parental rights, succession, domestic violence, adoption, artificial reproductive techniques, surrogate motherhood, liberty of conscience, criminal law, tax law and employment law, among other topics. All of these subjects would need to be attuned to the gender-neutral paradigm ... same sex marriage law in Argentina has turned the law upside down—no stone has remained unturned”.
That is what we face. Were we to consider the Bill in Committee, on Report and at Third Reading without at least some of that information at hand, it would frankly be like wandering into the dark blindfold. Hard on the heels of the procedure today at Second Reading, it looks as if we may be denied the chance of properly considering the Bill in Committee, since, to date, only two days have been allocated by the usual channels.
Even worse than that, we know that as the Bill left the House of Commons on the last day before the recess the Government announced their intention to conduct an immediate review of the whole issue of heterosexual civil partnerships. That is in Clause 14, which was introduced as a manuscript amendment. How can we be expected to consider turning the law of marriage on its head without taking full account of the implications of heterosexual civil partnerships as well? If we must consider changing marriage, let it be with all the facts at our disposal, all the consequences identified, all the financial implications worked out, all the social advantages and disadvantages known, and not blunder into a legal, theological, moral and sociological minefield.
I ask that this Bill should be defeated now, and not allowed to take up valuable parliamentary time in the later stages, when so many other pressing matters demand our attention. It should be defeated. The concept should be sent back to the drawing board because this is too serious and too important a matter to be introduced on a whim and handled in such cavalier fashion. The House of Lords is the final check, perhaps the only check, on the power of the Executive. It should use that power sparingly, but, on this occasion, use it positively. I beg to move.
My Lords, we live in a civilised and tolerant society, not in Alice’s Wonderland. I am proud to open this Second Reading debate on behalf of the opposition Benches. I know that a small minority of my noble friends are against this Bill, and, naturally, I respect their views, but the majority on my Benches, alongside the shadow Cabinet, Labour’s National Policy Forum and the Labour Party conference, warmly support both the Bill and the debate, which will enable us to recognise and affirm the loving and lasting commitment of couples who love each other. They must include the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, who with his wife is today celebrating their golden wedding anniversary. I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending them our heartiest congratulations.
I pay tribute to my right honourable and honourable friends and to those of all parties in the other place who have enabled the Bill’s safe passage. Many of them have shown considerable political courage. This is a hugely important milestone for equality, respect and dignity in our society, which rightly values stable relationships within the framework of marriage. I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell of Beeston, for an excellent introduction to the Bill—I hope that George Clooney was listening, of course—and for making herself available at all times to discuss concerns and answer questions. From experience, I know that it is particularly challenging for a Whip to take responsibility for a controversial piece of legislation, and I know that she will do a terrific job.
In an ever-changing world where turmoil and instability are too often the norm, it is a cause for celebration when two people of either the same or the opposite sex wish to commit their lives to each other through marriage. I am the product of a happy marriage and I had the good fortune to enjoy nearly 30 years of marriage. Our aim, like that of so many other couples, was to grow old together and to support each other in sickness and in health. We had our ups and downs, but the fact that we were married increased our resolve to make our relationship work, and it was the framework within which we wanted to raise our children. Of course, I have friends who are single and who are great parents, and friends who have lived together for many years and who are wonderful parents, such as my noble friend the Chief Whip—although I am delighted to say that on Saturday, he and his partner Jill are going to be married. I celebrate that and I would like to be able to celebrate the marriage of gay friends, with or without children.
Last week, I thought a lot about marriage: not just because of the Bill, but because I was choosing a wedding dress with my daughter, Charlie. We talked about marriage, which she described as an important ritual that would enable her to make a commitment to the man she loves in front of family, friends and our community. If Charlie wanted to marry Katherine instead of Kane, would I feel any different? No, I would not, and I would want other parents to have the same joy as I in celebrating the marriage of their children, whether they love people of the same or the opposite sex.
Some people ask why the Bill is necessary when we already have civil partnerships—often, I have to say, the same people who opposed those partnerships when we introduced them in 2004. Civil partnerships were a fantastic step forward and continue to be a great source of joy and security, but some people wish to choose marriage. It has a special status in our society, both historically and symbolically, and it represents a very particular value that the state has placed on the relationship. I well understand that this Bill has caused anguish for some people of faith who have concerns either because of the impact of the Bill on their faith or on the grounds of faith. I respect all genuine concerns—although clearly not those that are rooted in homophobia—and I am sure that our consideration of this Bill will be conducted with our usual tolerance, respecting our differences. I have to say, however, that I simply do not understand those who say that equal marriage can harm or undermine marriage between a man and a woman. Surely if we value and cherish marriage, we should want all those who wish to marry to be able to do so, and we should welcome the fact that marriage would be strengthened by opening it up to more couples. Surely we should be encouraging our young people, who see the love and strength their parents draw from their marriage, to aspire to the same commitment regardless of whether it is with another man or another woman.
There has been much discussion about whether there are sufficient protections for religious organisations. Just like equality, freedom of religion is central to a human rights-based society. That is why it is vital that the Bill does not impose an obligation on any faith group to conduct same-sex marriages. The Minister has spoken in detail about the quadruple lock and we are satisfied that the protections the Government have put in place in the Bill are sufficient to ensure that no faith group will be at risk of a human rights challenge for refusing to solemnise same-sex marriage. Naturally, this House will carefully scrutinise the protections contained in the Bill for religious freedom. I welcome that, and I look forward to the contributions of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, and my noble friend Baroness Kennedy, who were crystal clear in their evidence to the Public Bill Committee.
I look forward also to the contribution of the most reverend Primate to this debate. I know that the Church of England has rightly been working closely with the Government and I am pleased that there is agreement that the safeguarding of the position of canon law has been achieved and that the quadruple locks offer the necessary protection. I know that the Bishops now warmly support civil partnerships and I have read of the Bishop of Salisbury’s endorsement of same-sex marriage. Both are matters to be celebrated. I have also had excellent discussions with some right reverend Prelates in which we agreed that, from their perspective, the Bill would not result in the sky falling in or family life falling apart, while from my perspective it would not be a panacea for relationships, be they gay or straight. I also take this opportunity to send our best wishes to the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York for a speedy recovery.
Naturally, I am glad that the Government have listened to the concerns of the Church in Wales that were raised by my colleagues in another place, which resulted in an amendment to ensure that the Lord Chancellor will have no power of veto over the church’s decision, should it wish in future to provide for same sex marriages. The position of the Quakers and Unitarians, and of Reform Judaism, is absolutely clear, and I am delighted that the Bill will enable them to opt in to performing same sex marriage according to their religious rites.
Last week, while thinking about the Second Reading, I watched “The Times of Harvey Milk”. I wept at what one might call a chilling reminder of the pain and suffering that gays and lesbians endured a few short years ago—their lives blighted by society’s attitude towards their sexuality. That was 1970s America, but in the 1960s in this country people were locked up or punished for loving someone of the same sex. The Conservative Government introduced Section 28 in 1988 and it was not repealed until the Labour Government came to power. We had a proud record in making progress against discrimination and in favour of equality, and I am grateful for the generous comments of the noble Baroness. As well as civil partnerships, we equalised the age of consent, ended the ban on LGBT people serving in our Armed Forces, made homophobia a hate crime, outlawed discrimination in the workplace and in goods and services, and did much more. The measures were controversial at the time but now have widespread support.
We have come a long way, but there still needs to be a cultural shift. The Bill is not only hugely important for same-sex couples who wish to marry, and for transgender people who are in a marriage; it can play a critical role in driving attitudinal change. As noble Lords are aware, 20,000 homophobic crimes are still committed in this country every year, and many children suffer homophobic bullying. They are not just children who may be growing up to be gay, but those with lesbian or gay parents. Ninety-five per cent of secondary-school teachers have reported hearing anti-gay language in their schools. The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill will be a useful tool in tackling these attitudes. It will not just ensure legal equality in the eyes of the state but encourage society to celebrate the identity, relationships, commitment and love that lesbian and gay people share.
There are some outstanding issues in relation to the Bill that were raised in the other place and have not been resolved. First, pension rights are the subject of considerable debate. Currently, the Bill provides for less generous pension rights for same-sex married couples than for those of opposite sexes in respect of survivor benefits. In the Commons we called on the Government to come forward with an immediate review into the implications of equalising pension rights, and we will urge them to do this in the course of the Bill.
Secondly, our Front Bench supported amendments to allow couples to have humanist marriages in England and Wales, as almost 3,000 already choose to do in Scotland. On Report in the other place, the Attorney-General raised new concerns about the amendments’ compatibility with the Human Rights Act. However, we hope to resolve these issues in Committee in this House.
Thirdly, on transgender issues, the Bill will enable individuals to change their legal gender without having to end their marriage, righting a big injustice in our society. We welcome these amendments brought forward by the Government on Report in another place to protect pension rights for spouses who change their legal gender, as a result of issues raised by my colleagues and others during the Public Bill Committee. However, we will look carefully at further amendments that may be brought forward in relation to transgender marital issues.
With regard to heterosexual civil partnerships, a matter of much debate in the Commons, we are pleased that the Government have now committed to an immediate review of the introduction of such partnerships. I welcome the fact that the terms of reference for this review will be available before Committee. There were long debates on the issues of teachers and registrars. Our views on this are clear, but it is right that these issues of great importance should be debated fully in your Lordships’ House.
I am grateful to the Government for giving extra time for this Second Reading debate and ensuring that the vote will take place at a proper time. Some in this House will vote in favour of the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Dear, and against the Bill. I respectfully remind him that proposals to fragment our National Health Service did not appear in any of the party manifestos, nor in the coalition agreement. Perhaps more importantly, I refute the noble Lord’s suggestions about support for the Bill. The latest YouGov polling shows that 71% of people support same-sex marriage, including three out of five people of faith. The noble Lord also alleged that the Bill would affect divorce rates. It is true that divorce rates in Spain increased, but that was because it liberalised its divorce laws at exactly the same time as introducing same-sex marriage.
In respect of the composition of the Public Bill Committee and the allegations that its membership was stacked, the only reason that the committee was thus constituted is that the same MPs had previously insisted on a free vote across the Commons. This meant that the committee’s membership represented the very heavy Commons vote in favour of the Bill at Second Reading. In terms of e-mails and postbags, I am sure that those who are against the Bill wrote to the noble Lord, Lord Dear, while those who are in favour of the Bill wrote to me. To that extent we should question the comments made by the noble Lord.
However, all in all, I trust that following the detailed and careful scrutiny that this House will give, noble Lords will be convinced both by the safeguards in terms of religious faith and the arguments in terms of removing discrimination and extending the dignity and joy of marriage to same-sex couples. I firmly believe that our society will be strengthened when more couples are able to choose to make a lifetime commitment to each other, and when all members of our communities are able to celebrate their identity and relationship within the institution of marriage.
My Lords, I declare an interest. Many years ago, I had the great good fortune to meet someone. She and I have loved each other ever since—that is, apart from the occasional spectacular argument, usually about driving or DIY. As the slogans on the T-shirts used to say, it happens in the best of families. It was therefore with great relief that I read the letter from the Bishop of Salisbury to the noble Lord, Lord Alli, in which he said:
“Whilst marriage is robust and enduring, what is meant by marriage has developed and changed significantly”.
There have been many changes to what constitutes marriage over the years. In 1836, there was the change that allowed civil marriage. In 1949, there was the change that made 16 the minimum age for marriage. Those changes came about because of campaigns that were run by minorities and resisted by majorities for a very long time, but they are not changes that would now be overturned.
What we are doing today does not undermine any existing or future marriage. It extends the status of marriage to gay men and lesbians who want to make a public commitment in the presence of their families and friends, and sometimes their co-religionists. It reflects the wishes of those people who today do not want just to tolerate lesbians and gay men; they want to celebrate and support them as people in their own right.
Some noble Lords say that allowing gay people to get married is unfair because it leaves other sorts of relationships, such as those of siblings, without the same legal rights as those who choose a marital status. If enabling gay marriage will be unfair to another relationship, such as that of two sisters, then existing marriage laws are unfair. I think we all understand that relationships which adults enter into voluntarily are wholly distinct from relationships which are determined by consanguinity. If family members could become civil partners, it would be really easy for a bullying parent or sibling to force a member of their family into a relationship simply in order to protect property. I do not think that any of us want to legislate for that.
A great deal has been made about the issue of a conscience clause for registrars and other public servants. I grew up in a time and a place when discrimination in public services on the grounds of religion was not uncommon. It caused resentment and divided communities. The idea that public servants should decide, according to their personal beliefs, who does and does not receive a public service is just wrong. Taxes are levied on a non-discriminatory basis and services should be provided on a non-discriminatory basis.
Some opponents of this Bill say that we should not be addressing this—not when we have these huge economic difficulties. I disagree. Discrimination always comes with a price tag. In the United States, hundreds of employers—some very small; some of the biggest in the world, such as Nike and Microsoft—are assisting legal cases in support of gay marriage. These employers need to recruit and retain the most productive staff to make their businesses competitive—and that includes LGBT staff. These businesses want their gay employees to be able to focus on their jobs, not to be dealing with the inequality that means that they and their families always have to sit at the back of the bus. If those businesses have figured out that same-sex marriage is good for business, so should we.
This is a Bill about religious freedom. As somebody who was raised a Methodist, that is something that has been important to me all my life. No religion will be compelled to offer a same-sex marriage. On the same basis, it would be wrong to deny the rights of those religious organisations that wish to extend their fellowship to gay people and their families.
There is no impediment which would prevent this House from doing its job and subjecting this Bill to the high standards of scrutiny that it would apply to any other. In doing so, Members of your Lordships’ House will think long and hard, as they always do, about what is right and in the best interests of our society.
I and many of my colleagues on these Benches look forward to joining with noble Lords from all parts of the House to ensure that gay people and their families are afforded the dignity and respect that others take for granted, and that families, faiths and communities can grow stronger together as a result.
My Lords, the initial proposals published at the end of the autumn have needed much work to get them into today’s form. Much of that work has been done through detailed legal effort and discussion. I am deeply grateful to the DCMS teams and especially to the Secretary of State for the thoughtful way in which she has listened and the degree to which she has been willing to make changes in order to arrive at the stage we have reached today.
We all know, and it has been said, that this is a divisive issue. In general, the majority of faith groups remain very strongly against the Bill, and have expressed that view in a large number of public statements. The House of Bishops of the Church of England has also expressed a very clear majority view—although not unanimous, as has been seen by the strong and welcome contribution by the Bishop of Salisbury.
The so-called quadruple lock may have some chance of withstanding legal scrutiny in Europe, and we are grateful for it, although other faith groups and Christian denominations that have written to me remain very hesitant. There have been useful discussions about the position of schools with a religious character and the issues of freedom of conscience. I have noted the undertaking of the Minister on those subjects and am grateful for what she has said. The Minister has put forward all her views today with great courtesy and persuasive effect. I join in the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, in appreciation of that. I have to say that personally I regret the necessity of having to deal with the possibility of a Division at this stage on a Bill passed by a free vote in the other place.
I was particularly grateful to hear the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, and agree with the proud record that was established in this area by the previous Government during the years in which they held office. If I may, I will pass on her comments with gratitude to my colleague the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York.
It is clearly essential that stable and faithful same-sex relationships should, where those involved want it, be recognised and supported with as much dignity and the same legal effect as marriage. Although the majority of Bishops who voted during the whole passage of the Civil Partnership Act through your Lordships’ House were in favour of civil partnerships a few years ago, it is also absolutely true that the church has often not served the LGBT communities in the way it should. I express my sadness and sorrow for that considerable failure. There have been notable exceptions, such as my predecessor, the late Archbishop Ramsey, who vigorously supported decriminalisation in the 1960s. It is also necessary to express, as has been done already, total rejection of homophobic language, which is wrong and, more than that, sickening.
However, I and many of my colleagues retain considerable hesitations about the Bill. My predecessor, the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Williams of Oystermouth, showed clearly last summer in evidence to the consultation that it contains a series of category errors. It confuses marriage and weddings. It assumes that the rightful desire for equality, to which I have referred supportively, must mean uniformity, failing to understand that two things may be equal but different. As a result, it does not do what it sets out to do. Schedule 4 distinguishes clearly between same-gender and opposite-gender marriage, thus not achieving true equality.
The result is confusion. Marriage is abolished, redefined and recreated, being different and unequal for different categories. The new marriage of the Bill is an awkward shape, with same-gender and different-gender categories scrunched into it, neither fitting well. The concept of marriage as a normative place for procreation is lost. The idea of marriage as a covenant is diminished. The family in its normal sense, predating the state and as our base community of society, as we have already heard, is weakened. I am sure that these points will be expanded on by others in the debate, including those from these Benches.
For these and many other reasons, those of us in the churches and faith groups who are extremely hesitant about this Bill in many cases hold that view because we think that traditional marriage is a cornerstone of society, and rather than adding a new and valued institution alongside it for same-gender relationships, which I would personally strongly support to strengthen us all, the Bill weakens what exists and replaces it with a less good option that is neither equal nor effective. This is not a faith issue, although we are deeply grateful for the attention that the Government and the other place have paid to issues of religious freedom. However, it is not at heart a faith issue. It is about the general social good. Therefore, with much regret—but entire conviction—I cannot support the Bill as it stands.
My Lords, I will be brief. First, I congratulate the most reverend Primate on his speech. It was, as we might have guessed, impressive, well argued and, above all, compassionate. I thank him for that, but fear that I disagree with his conclusion.
Before I get to that, perhaps I could deal first with the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Dear. I have a deep respect for this House. I do not share the dismissive and, frankly, offensive views of the noble Lord, Lord Oakeshott, on the “Today” programme, which was the first interview I heard on flying in from Washington just in time for this debate. I accept and recognise that this is an appointed House, and it is an enormous privilege to be appointed to it. However, with that privilege come limitations on what we can do. Of course we can question legislation and seek to improve it. However, in my view, we cannot defeat at Second Reading the declared will of the House of Commons when, on a free vote, it has voted by over two to one to pass this legislation.
The noble Lord, Lord Dear, expressed doubts about the voting. I was in the Commons for 31 years and the allegations he repeated sound very much like the consistent complaint made by those who have been defeated in a free vote. No party and no set of Whips would respect someone who could be persuaded by pressure to change his view on a free vote. That part of the noble Lord’s speech is frankly nonsense. I believe MPs have the authority that comes from their election and which they retain as long as they are MPs. Much is said about public opinion, and we have heard it already, but we should recognise that they and they alone are answerable to the public on this issue and not us in this House. We cannot take over that role; that is not our position. I thought that this was exactly the case some of us were putting a few months ago to avoid the prospect of two elected Houses standing side by side.
We would be profoundly wrong, if not politically suicidal, to vote against a Second Reading. However, I do not argue the case purely on those grounds—I also strongly believe in the Bill itself. Parliament should value people equally in the law and enabling same-sex marriage removes a current inequity. I believe that there are many gay and lesbian couples who want more than civil partnership, although it is something of a wonder to me to see how civil partnerships have suddenly become so popular among those I do not remember supporting them up until now. We should recognise that there are many deeply religious gay and lesbian couples, including people in the church, who want the commitment that marriage offers. This Bill, rather than weakening the institution of marriage, strengthens it, and our purpose as a Parliament should be to encourage the stability it can bring.
Just before I left Washington I had a meeting with a senior doctor who happens to be gay. Washington DC already has a law enabling equal marriage, as do other American states and they appear to have managed perfectly well. As it happens, he had not pushed for the change but he said that, quite apart from the rights of the individual, it sent out a much wider message for gays and lesbians that, in his words: “We are like everyone else”. That was the point and the message that was being put out. An obvious fact, you might say, but one that is denied by many countries around the world. It is denied by their Governments and their people and sometimes, I regret to say, by their churches. Over the past few months I have travelled to some of those countries and have seen the prejudice. I acknowledge freely the profound impact that that has had on me, which very much affects my attitude this afternoon.
I say to the noble Lord, Lord Dear, that this is my argument regarding the foreign experience and not the travesty of it which he sought to set out. I have seen equality fiercely denied in eastern Europe; in a country such as Ukraine, which he mentioned, too often politicians show their contempt for gay people and violence against them is the result. I have particularly seen equality denied in countries in sub-Saharan Africa such as Uganda. For several years there was a popular paper there whose sole purpose was to expose gay people, photograph them, give their addresses and invite the violence against them that followed. Homosexuality is a criminal offence there and of course the British first made it one, as we have in other African countries.
I am not optimistic enough to believe that our decision here tomorrow will break down the persecution, hostility and discrimination. However, it will show decisively how this country has changed, and the value we place on gay and lesbian people in our society. I believe that it will show support for the persecuted minorities around the world—and make no mistake, they exist. At home, I believe it will show the gay and lesbian community our belief in equality—I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Dear, was a little complacent about the position on that—and, above all, their right to expect what we all expect; nothing more, but certainly nothing less. For some of us, that is a fundamental moral issue.
My Lords, this issue raises a great deal of passion because it touches on things that we all care about: equality, human rights and our religious beliefs. The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, and I were invited before the committee that examined this Bill before its passage through the House of Commons. We were asked to present a legal view on the likely success of any challenge to the special protections being given to religious organisations—the churches and so on—in the Bill. We both took the opportunity to speak to legal organisations, to colleagues in the law and to people who often took different positions and different sides on many issues concerning rights. We were both firmly of the view that the protections provided by the Bill to churches, religious organisations and church ministers are strong and should reassure this House that there is no real risk of a successful challenge.
There is no obligation whatever on religious organisations to host gay marriages if they do not wish to do so. The legal position is that it is permissible but absolutely not required in law. Any requirement on a church, religious organisation or minister to conduct same-sex marriage contrary to the religious convictions of its members would violate Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The protections of that article are very strong and any analysis of the jurisprudence will show that the desire to maintain those protections is strong. The case brought by the Muslim community against the Bulgarian Government, which went all the way to the European Court of Human Rights, laid down an important principle: the autonomous exercise of religious freedoms, and that exercise by religious communities, is indispensable for pluralism in a democratic society.
Why, then, is this Bill going through? It is going through because over my lifetime as a practitioner in the law we have seen a huge change in the position of gay people in our communities. It is interesting to note in this House, where the average age is above 60, that people above the age of 60 express the greatest concern about any change in the law. People under the age of 60 by and large favour this change. You have to ask yourself why that might be. I think it is because of the growing tolerance in our society and the desire to see people treated as equals regardless of race, sexuality or gender. That is something that we should cherish and see as an enormous achievement for our society.
The claim is that marriage is a union between a man and a woman by tradition, custom and practice. The noble Lord, Lord Dear, articulated it at the beginning of the debate. Of course, initially the idea was that marriage was about protecting property and making claims on children, and its purpose was to produce and provide a framework for the protection of property and in which children could be raised in a decent and wholesome way. That conception of marriage came into being before we knew as much as we now do about the human condition. We have now separated out the sexual act for the purposes of procreation from the sexual act as a source of sexual fulfilment. Even the churches would acknowledge that.
A woman or man can nowadays know for sure that they cannot conceive a child, but none of us would expect that to reduce in any way their entitlement to marry. A couple may decide to marry and enjoy what they see marriage as providing for their relationship, even if they know that they will not have children. We know those—there are many in this House—who, on the death of their partner, have gone on to marry again after the age at which they would ever have children or provide the framework for the conventional family. They do so because they want to create a special commitment to the person whom they choose to marry.
We have to ask ourselves whether some of the reasons and rationales for maintaining something are not disguising other concerns. We have changed the meaning of marriage. We have changed it intentionally to be inclusive and to make it possible for people who want to make a commitment in love to another to be able to enter into this public declaration in the way that we do. We must also remind ourselves what it is touching upon. It is touching upon the desire in most human beings to love and be loved. It is part of the whole nature of our humanity. That people, gay or straight, should want to do that—to declare it in the presence of those they consider to be their community and to be part of the whole that is our society—is surely an advance on marriage as it is currently constructed. It means that, in fact, we are enhancing rather then diminishing the meaning of marriage.
Therefore, as I close these few comments I say that, having reviewed the law, Article 9 of the European convention—which protects religions—is about the needs of community and society, and how they have to be balanced with individual needs. In doing that, the churches can have the protection that they have so earnestly sought from the Secretary of State. However, we are also strengthening our society by giving the right to marry to those who earnestly want it and want to be able to live openly and publicly in a declaration of love. I submit to the House that that has to be something that the law should support.
My Lords, last month it was wonderful to hear the general acclamation in the House for the First Reading of the Alan Turing (Statutory Pardon) Bill. It was the first time in my brief two and a half years in your Lordships’ Chamber that I have heard such a response to the First Reading of a Bill. It demonstrates how societal attitudes towards homosexuality have moved on over the past 60 years. It was brought home to me five years ago when my husband and I celebrated our silver wedding anniversary and two close gay friends invited us to their civil partnership, with a date chosen to mark 25 years of their private commitment to one another. Over that 25-year period they have been harassed and attacked, and are so cautious still that they would rather that I did not mention them by name. That ceremony was a moving event, but it was not marriage; it was a legal arrangement that helped provide them with certain protections, but it was not the commitment that you have with marriage. I support civil partnerships but believe that marriage should be available to those who want to make that greater commitment.
The core of marriage to me as a Christian—and, by the by, as a member of the Church of England—is that the commitment made by two people of their undying love to each other, through good times and bad, through sickness and health, stable and faithful, as the most reverend Primate the Archbishop mentioned, is a building block of our society. I respect those for whom the theological arguments are core to their beliefs and practice but, frankly, I struggle to find those arguments expressed by Jesus himself in the New Testament. I also want to quote from the letter of the Bishop of Salisbury, who I suspect will be quoted frequently today. He says:
“The desire for the public acknowledgment and support of stable, faithful, adult, loving same sex sexual relationships is not addressed by the six Biblical passages about homosexuality which are concerned with sexual immorality, promiscuity, idolatry, exploitation and abuse. The theological debate is properly located in the Biblical accounts of marriage, which is why so many Christians see marriage as essentially heterosexual. However, Christian morality comes from the mix of Bible, Christian tradition and our reasoned experience. Sometimes Christians have had to rethink the priorities of the Gospel in the light of experience”.
He goes on to cite slavery and the apartheid system in South Africa. I would add to that the church’s view, and that of society, about contraception early in the 20th century. My noble kinswoman Baroness Stocks was roundly and publicly harassed for working alongside Marie Stopes for early contraception. Society today would be horrified if that were to be repeated.
There are other faith groups that agree that same- sex marriage is important. I briefly quote from Rabbi Lea Mühlstein, from the progressive West London Synagogue, who says:
“Judaism holds that every person was created in the image of God. It is clear to me that the divine image in all of us demands from each of us that we be treated equally before the law. As such, I am divinely obligated to respect the needs and wishes of my congregants—whether they be straight or gay, lesbian or bisexual”.
The Quakers, as ever, set the pace on this. In 1963, in their paper, Towards a Quaker View of Sex, they said:
“Surely it is the nature and quality of a relationship that matters; one must not judge by its outward appearance but by its inner worth … We see no reason why the physical nature of a sexual act should be the criterion by which the question whether or not it is moral should be decided. An act which expresses true affection between two individuals and gives pleasure to them both, does not seem to us to be sinful by reason alone of the fact that it is homosexual”.
The Quakers see God in everyone, and all commitments to relationships as of equal worth. So I am pleased that the Quakers have said publicly that they will opt into the registration arrangements and carry out equal marriage with enthusiasm.
The quadruple lock protects and facilitates same-sex marriage for religious groups. Speaking as a member of the Church of England, I hope that we might begin a debate that acknowledges the breadth of views within our church, even if the noise from those opposed to equal marriage is louder than that made by those of us who believe that love and marriage is God-given to all.
Very briefly, I turn to Clause 12 in Part 2, which rights a dreadful wrong faced by transgender people in a marriage. It has caused immense distress to those already facing the turmoil of major changes in their lives. I am delighted that these proposals now accept that changed gender status should not imperil an existing marriage.
I, like others, am concerned about voting at Second Reading. My point is that as Peers we should not be voting on whether we like or dislike the Bill. It is important that we give this House the chance to debate and amend as we see fit—a strength that this House has shown to another place on many occasions.
Our society has moved on even in the eight years since the introduction of civil partnerships. Surveys show that a majority of people welcome same-sex marriage—including, as has already been mentioned, three out of five of those with faith. It is important that we move forward to hearing that public voice. Now is the time for equal marriage. Please do not let my friends have to wait another 20 years, until their golden anniversary, before they can choose to marry.
My Lords, surely the noble Lord, Lord Dear, was correct to start his speech by saying, in graphic language, that this Bill is about imposing an entirely new meaning on a term as familiar and fundamental as “marriage”. Throughout history, in all countries and cultures, marriage has been the union of a man and a woman; and although not every married couple have or want children, the core function of the union has always been the procreation and joint care of children. Over the years, of course, there have been changes in marriage law, but throughout history there has been no change in the essential nature of the institution—the union of a man with a woman.
It has never been a matter of gays being banned from marrying. It was never even thought remotely possible that the term could be applied to two people of the same sex. Now we are told that it is unjust to treat same-sex and opposite-sex relationships differently, but surely it is no disrespect to anyone, just common sense, to point out that we are talking of two types of union which are indeed different—entirely different. From the obligation to care for any children, and to consummate the marriage or face a decree of nullity, to the commitment to sexual fidelity, with the threat of divorce on the grounds of adultery, there is no way in which the union of a man and a woman, with all these serious implications, can be compared with the wish of a couple to see their partnership publicly recognised.
I remind your Lordships of something that may have been forgotten. On 11 February 2004, the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, speaking for the then Labour Government, declared from the Dispatch Box—unchallenged by any Member of the House—that,
“marriage should be possible only between people of opposite gender”.—[Official Report, 11/2/04; cols. 1093.]
He went on to say:
“The concept of same-sex marriage is a contradiction in terms, which is why our position is utterly clear: we are against it, and do not intend to promote it or allow it to take place”.—[Official Report, 11/2/04; cols. 1094-95.]
What on earth has happened to turn what was out of the question those few years ago into a great national priority? Is it because of a change in the law in other countries? If that is the case, we should look at what has happened in Spain, Holland and Scandinavia, where, since same-sex marriage has been allowed, the decline in heterosexual marriage has been precipitous.
Finally, this Bill is not just about enlarging the rights of same-sex couples; it will have a dramatic effect on others. With the Deputy Prime Minister calling opponents of the Bill bigots, with Lynne Featherstone saying they are,
“fanning the flames of homophobia”,
and with traditional marriage being likened to apartheid and slavery, there is already a nasty whiff of intolerance about, directed at those who support traditional marriage, and with freedom of conscience and freedom of speech threatened.
Let us not forget that our courts have already ruled in a number of cases, including the celebrated case of the Catholic adoption society, that the demands of equality are more important than the right of people to observe the dictates of their faith. So woe betide those working in the public service who express the view that marriage is the union of a man and a woman. Each will, if not threatened with dismissal, have a torrid time being treated as bigots. Ordinary people with deep feelings about the sanctity of marriage will also be demonised as homophobic and will be very lucky if they do not finish up accused of hate crime.
For this, Mr Cameron thought it was worth picking a fight with his best supporters. It was a big mistake.
My Lords, I warmly welcome the Bill for the reasons stated by the Minister and the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, in their admirable speeches opening the debate.
I much regret that the noble Lord, Lord Dear, should think it appropriate to seek to deny a Second Reading to a Bill which has received overwhelming support in the other place on a free vote. The noble Lord emphasised what he described as the majority view in the country at large. I have to tell him and others who share his views that the world out there has moved on and that for most people, particularly those under 60, the sexuality of their neighbours is neither a concern nor a threat, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, said. It bemuses people that any element of unequal treatment should remain in our society simply by reference to people’s sexual orientation.
Many people outside the House listening to the debate or reading it in Hansard in due course will wonder why the noble Lord, Lord Dear, and his supporters, all of whom rightly value the institution of marriage, seek to deny the same happiness, fulfilment and status to other people simply by reference to their sexual orientation. I am a paid-up member of the married club and glad to be so. It is precisely because of the value of marriage that it should not be denied to same-sex couples. There is no question of the Bill being introduced on a whim, as the noble Lord suggested. It is being introduced on a fundamental question of principle to address a wrong that needs to be addressed.
I wish to comment on a theme which appears to drive the Bill’s opponents. The noble Lord, Lord Dear, referred to what he described as centuries of tradition and the concept of marriage as we have always known it, and the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, made similar points. This is to treat the law of marriage like the law of the Medes and the Persians which, according to the Book of Daniel, chapter 6, verse 8—the devil can quote scripture—“altereth not”. The reality is that the law of marriage in this country has altereth a lot. It has altereth a lot from time to time according to changes in social conditions and social attitudes. The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, made this point in her powerful contribution to the debate.
Prior to legislation in 1907, a man could not marry his deceased wife’s sister. Prior to 1921, a man could not marry his deceased brother’s widow. Other prohibited degrees were removed in 1931. All of this information is in the valuable Halsbury’s Laws of England edited by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern. The Gender Recognition Act 2004 allowed a transsexual to marry in his or her acquired sex even though, I remind the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, procreation is plainly not possible in such circumstances. The minimum age for marriage has been altered from time to time; the law related to the validity of non-Anglican marriages has developed over time; the law of divorce has been amended from time to time; other incidents of marriage have been the subject of change. Until case law in the 1990s when the first judgment in the modern era was given by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, the law proceeded on the basis that a husband could not be criminally liable for raping his wife if he had sexual intercourse with her without her consent.
It is, therefore, simply unsustainable for critics of the Bill to suggest that there is anything unprincipled in Parliament amending the law of marriage in a fundamental manner to recognise social developments and to do it in accordance with basic principle.
I will make one other point if I may. I have provoked the noble Lord.
As we are both Benchers of Gray’s Inn, the noble Lord would have to go a long way to provoke me. Before we go any further, may I ask the noble Lord if he has taken notice of the fact that at no stage in my address did I say that because the law and custom of marriage were well established we should continue in the same vein? The main thrust of my address was that sufficient research has not been carried out into the laws of unintended consequences. Could he address that?
I cannot address every point made by the noble Lord. If he fails, as I hope he does, to prevent the House from debating the detail and the arguments in Committee and on Report, I very much hope that the House will address every point made by him. I focused on his completely unsustainable suggestion that there are “centuries of tradition” and that the concept of marriage as we have always known it is being removed. I am quite happy to try to deal with every point if noble Lords want me to make a speech of 30 or 40 minutes but I will not trespass on the tolerance of the House to do so.
I do not accept that there are unintended consequences. I will deal finally with just one suggestion of an unintended consequence made by the noble Lord and other critics—that the Bill is going to force religious bodies to conduct same-sex marriages contrary to their religious principles. The noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, mentioned that we both gave oral evidence on this subject to the House of Commons Public Bill Committee. I explained my view that there was no realistic possibility whatever that any court, domestic or European, would compel a church or other religious body to conduct a same-sex marriage ceremony contrary to the doctrines of that religious faith. The reason is very simple: under this Bill, a same-sex couple will be able to enter into a civil marriage. Their only reason for wanting a religious ceremony would be to gain a religious benefit. All, and I mean all, case law confirms that courts will leave religious bodies to decide on the allocation of religious benefits. None of the other legal concerns raised by the opponents of the Bill seems to have any basis whatever.
I am confident that this House will give a Second Reading to the Bill tomorrow and I very much look forward to a reasoned debate in Committee on all questions of detail.
My Lords, having conducted some 400 weddings as a parish priest, making the journey with couples as they anticipate a lifelong commitment has been one of the great privileges of the ordained life. I have witnessed personally the stability, fulfilment and anchor for life for so many, which has been transformational. However, I have also observed that the open and public recognition of gay relationships that civil partnerships now provide displays many of the very qualities for which marriage itself is so highly celebrated. I speak as one whose respect for and appreciation of gay clergy is deep and who recognises in them sacrificial lives and fruitful ministries. I also recognise the need for some humility at this moment in speaking on matters of equality from these Benches. I add my appreciation to that of the most reverend Primate for the way in which the Secretary of State and her colleagues have tried to accommodate the Church of England’s concerns at every point in this process. I entirely endorse what the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, and others have said about the need to continue to make progress on the inclusion of gay people in our society, and I entirely accept what the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, has said about change and development in our understanding of the institution of marriage.
Yet I cannot support the Bill and, from the post bags of those of us on these Benches, the reasons why are shared by many who do not hold the Christian faith and by the great majority of the leaders of the other world faith traditions. I want to highlight three reasons.
First, this legislation does not resolve the decades-old debate about when undeniable differences between men and women matter and when they do not. Modern political discourse tends to recognise as public goods only things that can be equally appropriated by any given individual, regardless of difference. This involves a difficulty in entertaining notions of public rights and obligations that might pertain to one sex rather than the other, or to one sexual orientation rather than another. As Professor John Milbank has written in a paper for the ResPublica think tank:
“The risk of this exclusive focus on individual rights is that the needs and capacities of people in their specific differences, which may be either naturally given or the result of cultural association, tend to be overridden. And so it is that injustice can arise in the name of justice”.
I could not help noticing in the debate in this House on International Women’s Day the underlying assumption that women bring a special quality to the public square and that the complementarity of men and women is what enriches and stabilises society. Yet, in the realm of public discourse, assertion of sexual difference in relation to marriage has become practically unspeakable, in spite of the fact that it is implicitly assumed by most people in the course of everyday life. Equal marriage will bring to an end the one major social institution that enshrines that complementarity.
Secondly, the Bill, introduced in haste, has not allowed enough time for a weighing of gains and losses to the well-being of society. Do the gains of meeting the need of many LGBT people for the dignity and equality that identifying their partnerships as marriage gives outweigh the loss entailed as society moves away from a clear understanding of marriage as a desirable setting within which children are conceived and raised? In traditional Christian societies, the price you pay for getting married is, in principle, a heavy one—sexual fidelity till death us do part and, for some, a responsibility for the socialising and educating of children. As the ResPublica paper on this subject pointed out:
“As people become more and more reluctant to pay that price, so do weddings become more and more provisional, and the distinction between the socially endorsed union and the merely private arrangement becomes less and less absolute and less and less secure”.
As sociologists regularly observe, this gain in freedom for one generation may imply a loss for the next. Regardless of the best intentions of advocates of equality, if we detach the procreation of children as being one of the core purposes of marriage, then no social institution enshrines that purpose for the generations ahead. This is not, of course, to say that those who cannot or do not wish to have children are any less married.
Thirdly, as others have said, there is a difficulty here in the use of language. Put simply, there are two competing ideas of marriage at play in this debate. The first is perhaps traditional and conjugal, and extends beyond the individuals who marry to the children they hope to create and to the society they wish to shape. The second is more privative, and is to do with a relationship abstracted from the wider concern that marriage was originally designed to speak to. As the most reverend Primate has pointed out, this category error lies at the heart of this Bill as drafted.
In deciding whether to give this Bill a Second Reading, I have to ask myself several questions. Is it clear that it will produce public goods for our society that outweigh the loss of understanding of marriage as we have known it? Has the debate in the country and in Parliament been conducted in a way that will enable our society to adapt wisely to a fundamental social change? At a time of extreme social pressure, is this innovation likely to create a more cohesive, settled and unified society? Lastly, at this stage, is it appropriate to frustrate the clear will of the Commons on this Bill?
I have concluded that the answer to all these questions must be no and therefore, if it is the unusual intention of this House to divide at Second Reading, I shall have no alternative but to abstain.
My Lords, I shall come back to the speech of the right reverend Prelate at the end of my remarks. Like all of us, I have had a very large amount of correspondence on this subject, much of it by e-mail. Thanks to the Whitsun Recess, I have been able to reply to a great many of these—not all, but most.
My own starting point is something that I learnt many years ago as an undergraduate faced with what was, for me, a new involvement with people who were not heterosexual. I asked my grandfather, who was an extremely wise lecturer at the Edinburgh medical school, all about it. He said, “My dear boy, it is as foolish to condemn those who have homosexual proclivities as it is to condemn them for having red hair”. I have lived with that all my life and I have always opposed discrimination against homosexuals.
In the exchanges I have had through e-mail and other communications, I have identified three clear lines of argument against the Bill. The first I can deal with very briefly. There have been references to homophobia: I am afraid that some of the messages I have received actually reek of homophobia. I was reminded of some of the arguments advanced when Parliament abolished the criminal liability for homosexual conduct between consenting adults. There were those same dreadful arguments, deeply shaming, and I am very sorry that they still exist.
The second argument is one that has been referred to several times in this debate so far. The question is: does the Bill redefine marriage? It was put to me by one correspondent that:
“The Government’s plans will redefine the marriages of the 24 million married people without their consent”.
Other people have referred to their anniversaries. Last year, my wife and I celebrated our diamond wedding, and I have to say that it has been a marriage with mutual comfort and support. Is this Bill going to redefine that marriage? I cannot see how that could possibly happen. I was grateful to my noble friend on the Front Bench for confirming that nothing in this Bill will redefine our marriage or indeed those of the other 24 million married people in this country. One has to regard that argument as really quite misconceived. As others have said, it is not irrelevant that there is a great deal more support for the Bill among young people who are facing marriage, are about to get married or hope to get married than there is among the population generally. They do not see it like that. One has only to think of the possibility of the following happening. A young man poses the question to his intended, “Will you marry me?” and she replies, “Oh no. This Bill has made it all totally different. It’s for gays and lesbians—I can’t possibly marry you”. That is pure fantasy and I do not think we should pay too much attention to it.
The other argument that I have been rather more impressed by, and which again has been mentioned, is the question of the potential liability and difficulties for people, particularly in the public service, who find themselves, in a sense, implementing the provisions of the Bill in one way or another. A number of people, including some of those who have expressed support for the Bill, have voiced these concerns to me, and that is something that this House will need to look at quite carefully. I was very much comforted by the assurance given to us by my noble friend on the Front Bench that Ministers are considering what more might be done to allay those anxieties. I regard that as very important.
Finally, I return to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester. I hope that he will not feel it is unfair if I call him my “old friend”, as indeed he is. I have come to the firm conclusion that there is nothing to fear in gay marriage and that, indeed, it will be a positive good not just for same-gender unions but for the institution of marriage generally. The effect will be to put right at the centre of marriage the concept of a stable, loving relationship. As a practising Christian, perhaps I may make the point to the Bishops’ Benches, including to the most reverend Primate, that there is every reason why, in time, the Anglican Church should come to accept that, although I recognise that it may take some time. The character of love which marriage reflects—that it is faithful, stable, tough, unselfish and unconditional—is the same character that most Christians see in the love of God. Marriage is therefore holy, not because it is ordained by God, but because it reflects that most important central truth of our religion: the love of God for all of us.
My Lords, some tend to label anyone who opposes this Bill as part of a group of homophobic bigots. Once that is said, the argument has stopped. As a Labour Peer, I wholly dismiss that—I find it insulting. I note, for example, that some key elements of the homosexual lobby, including Stonewall, have come to support same-sex marriage only in the fairly recent past. For me, there is a clear distinction between anti-discrimination, which I support, and seeking an absolute equality, which I oppose. I recall that as a young barrister I was saddened to see before the courts a trail of men whose lives and careers had been ruined by the then law. I am also glad that the legal discrimination which existed has been removed by the Civil Partnership Act. If there are deficiencies, they can be met by amendments of the Act itself to further protect same-sex couples.
Today, proponents of the Bill appear to argue on the basis of equality, but equality is not an absolute good. I am not a Roman Catholic, but saw this same false reasoning employed against Roman Catholic adoption agencies. Reasonable compromises were cast aside by zealots in the name of equality. The juggernaut rolled on. The result was that children lost out, as those caring agencies were forced to close.
In this case, the good in question is the institution of marriage, which has never yet been changed. Of course there have been changes in the law of marriage, but nothing as fundamental as this change to the institution. Marriage as traditionally defined is the union between a man and a woman. A bedrock principle, it relates to the rights of children and their need to know their identity, and is a generational bridge between the past and the future. Its fundamental position in our law is well illustrated by the number of statutes that will have to be changed if the law is now passed. The Bill seeks to make equal that which is not equal. The relationship between a man and a woman is unique. Same-sex relationships are different. Perhaps we should seek to find another name for them, if same-sex couples seek dignity. Thus there is the problem with this Bill of dealing with first, adultery, and secondly, non-consummation. In the Bill, same-sex couples are not required to take account of these criteria, but are still deemed to be married.
Some argue, as we have just heard from the noble Lord, that love between any two people is a decisive consideration: “amor vincit omnia”. However, love is not everything. The law of marriage discriminates on grounds of age and affinity: you cannot marry a parent, sibling or child, or marry someone who is already married. Why exclude these categories in the new definition? Hence, in the Netherlands, a court has endorsed a three-way cohabiting contract. In Brazil a three-way union has been allowed. Today, the borders are clear. Where, then, are the new borders as one sets out on this path? There will be increased pressures for polygamy. In short, marriage should surely not be available for everyone, even if they love one another. The state cannot lightly modify the meaning of words that have stood the test of time, as with Orwellian Newspeak.
The Government announced their proposals in March last year. There was no manifesto commitment, Green Paper or White Paper, and very inadequate consultation on the “how” and not the “whether”. There is no evidence of substantial demand, although there would be some pent-up demand at first. There is no evidence of claims that the change would strengthen the family or the institution of marriage. There is no evidence that the Government, in their haste, have examined the effects of the change in other countries. There is no evidence, either, of any serious attempt to protect conscientious objectors, teachers, social workers, registrars, foster parents, or churches which use public halls for worship.
Why the hurry? If the Government were so attached to the principle of equality, they would have changed both institutions—marriage and civil partnership—from the outset, and would not have been forced into a messy last-minute deal to ensure the passage of the Bill. This is not the way to deal with a hallowed institution that has been fundamental to civilised societies from time immemorial. A French philosopher, who was a disciple of Rousseau, once observed that our Parliament can do anything save change a man into a woman. This Government appear to think otherwise—or at least that Parliament can change traditional gender relationships.
We know that Mr Cameron likes consulting the people in referendums. Indeed, not only has he promised an “in or out” referendum on EU membership in 2017, he has enacted already for a referendum whenever there is a transfer of power to Brussels. Surely this proposed change is far more fundamental to our society than any transfer of power to Brussels. Therefore, I challenge him to call a referendum. He and his friends will put their case for yes, while many of us—Labour, Conservative and Cross-Bench—will be on the other side. Let the people decide.
My Lords, I refer noble Lords to my interests as set out in the Register of Lords’ Interests. Many erudite Members have already spoken in the debate and I know that many more will contribute later on today and tomorrow. They will discuss what is right and what is wrong with this Bill. I start from the premise that all people have a contribution to make to society, each in their different way. I respect them all as individuals and I respect their partnerships.
I am very fortunate in that I have never felt any discrimination in being a woman. When I started in public life nearly 50 years ago, it was actually an advantage to be a woman. When I entered your Lordships’ House, only 5% of Members were women. When I told my husband that I was one in a million, which I was, he was unimpressed. Also—perhaps I should not tell your Lordships this—when I first came here I received more Valentine cards than I ever had as a teenager. I do not ask for or want equality; I value being different. I do not want to be called a man or treated as a man because women are different. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leicester said, sometimes we bring something new to politics, to business, to discussions and to life.
As your Lordships may be aware, I have a particular interest in health and medical issues, where I have seen new specialties emerge. Initially, they were part of an existing institution or a royal college. After a while, they felt confident enough to establish and create their own specialty, as with the Royal College of General Practitioners and the anaesthetists. These royal colleges are now accepted and are respected institutions in their own right.
“Marriage” is the word that means a union of a man and a woman. Same-sex couples have a yearning for equality. Initially, they want to attach their union to an existing institution and use existing words. Marriage between a man and a woman is different from a union between two women or two men. I believe that the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities should have the confidence to establish their own institution. What they lack is the lexicology to establish and name their own institution, which will be respected and accepted. I believe that, in time, LGBT people will regret attaching their unions to heterosexual marriage. Soon they will say, “No, we are different. We want be different and we need to create our own institution”. Like a flag, a motto or a name, they need to find their own terminology, their own symbols to express their rights and their different contribution to society—acknowledgment and respect for their own institution of partnership. I urge these people to be bold, to be confident and eschew the institutions of others, to build their own and be themselves. It might be sensible to negotiate with LGBT organisations to see if a solution can be found.
I do not think there is any need to be overly influenced by what is happening in other countries. We need to look at our own situation differently. It should be for LGBT communities to kick over the traces and be innovative. They should not seek to attach themselves to the institution of marriage. Their rights are assured and their love is acknowledged. Adopting an ancient word in the belief that same-sex marriage is the same as heterosexual marriage is false; it is patently different. This false premise on which the Bill is founded undermines its rationale. We should reject this flawed Bill and have a rethink.
My Lords, I understand very well the unease that many of your Lordships feel about this Bill. I was brought up in a world where homosexuality was whispered about in dark corners and any hint of its expression resulted in expulsion. Our understanding of homosexuality is undoubtedly the biggest social change of my lifetime.
My own change and understanding came about when I realised—for example, through reading the biographies of gay people—that often, from a very early age, they had found themselves predominantly attracted to members of their own sex, not just physically but as whole persons. While some people are bisexual and there is a degree of fluidity in the sexuality of others, we know that for a significant minority their sexuality is not a matter of choice but as fundamental to their identity as being male or female. That is a fact that must bring about a decisive shift in our understanding.
The question arises as to how the church and society should respond to this. Both have an interest in helping people live stable lives in committed relationships. For this reason, many of us warmly welcome civil partnerships, not just because of the legal protections that they rightly afford to those who enter into them but because they offer the opportunity for people to commit themselves to one another publicly. Personally, I take a high view of civil partnerships. The idea of a lifelong partnership is a beautiful one. I deeply regret that the Church of England has not yet found a way of publicly affirming civil partnerships in a Christian context. I wish that it had warmly welcomed them from the first and provided a liturgical service in which the couple could commit themselves to one another before God and ask for God’s blessing upon their life together. If only the church had made it clear that although these relationships might be different in some respects from the union of a man and woman, they are equally valid in the eyes of the church and, more importantly, in the eyes of God.
Sadly, too many who now say that they accept civil partnerships have done so only slowly, reluctantly and through gritted teeth. Today we are not in a situation where civil partnerships are regarded as different but equal to marriage. Rightly or wrongly, the impression is inevitably created that one form of relationship is inferior to the other, and people believe that marriage is a profounder and richer form of relationship than a civil partnership.
Most importantly, many gay and lesbian people believe this and want to enter not just into a civil partnership but a marriage: a lifelong commitment of love and fidelity, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health. Marriage affords legal advantages that are denied to civil partnerships, such as their legal status in many countries, but that is not the main point. The point is that those who wish to enter into this most fundamental of human relationships should be able to do so legally. I am aware that this involves a significant change in our understanding of marriage, but marriage has never had a fixed character. The noble Lord, Lord Pannick, eloquently pointed out that its legal meaning has changed over the years; and no less significantly, its social meaning has changed.
For most of history, among the upper classes, marriage was primarily a way of controlling titles and wealth. Among all classes, it involved the radical subservience of women. Often it went along with a very lax attitude—by males, not females—to relationships outside marriage. Contraception was forbidden and this resulted in many children, and as often as not the wife dying young. Only in the 18th century did we get a growth in emphasis on the quality of the relationship of the couple. Now, this mutual society, help and comfort that the one ought to have with the other, in prosperity and adversity, is rightly stressed. This is equally valued by all people, whatever their sexuality.
I really do not underestimate the linguistic dissonance set up by this Bill and the consequent unease felt by many but, for those reasons that I have briefly outlined, I warmly welcome it. I believe in marriage. I believe, with the Jewish rabbi of old, that in the love of a couple there dwells the shekinah—the divine presence; or, to put it in Christian terms, that which reflects the mutual love of Christ and his church. I believe in the institution of marriage and I want it to be available to same-sex couples as well as to males and females.