Nick supports equal marriage in Northern Ireland

Nick Herbert

I rise to support new clause 1 and to agree with everything that the hon. Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn) said in moving it. I take very seriously the points the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Nigel Dodds) has just made, as I am sure do many on both sides of the Committee. It is not a small matter for this House to decide that it will legislate in this area; we should consider it carefully, and I have done so and want to explain why I have reached the decision that it is right for the UK Parliament to step in at the moment.

First, we need to reflect on the fact that 28 countries worldwide have now legislated for, or enabled through a court or referendum decision, same-sex marriage: Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, Sweden and most recently Ecuador through the courts and Taiwan through its legislature. Costa Rica will make it 29, as of course England and Wales and Scotland have legislated too.

Too often, people find themselves saying that the UK has provided for same-sex marriage, but that is not true. It is anomalous, as has been said already in this debate, that citizens in one part of the United Kingdom cannot avail themselves of something that many people regard to be a fundamental right: to be able to enter into a marriage with the person they love.

Two arguments therefore have to be addressed. The first is that, in spite of it being the right thing to do, the UK Parliament should refrain from making such provision because it should be a devolved matter. The problem is that we do not have a functioning Executive in Northern Ireland. We have not had devolved government for some time, and notwithstanding the optimism of the right hon. Member for Belfast North—I hope he is right—we might not have it for some time going forward. Meanwhile, there are couples in Northern Ireland who do not enjoy the same rights as those in the rest of the United Kingdom. They wish to get married but are legally prevented from doing so. How much longer will they have to wait?

Ms Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab)

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that this House has been quite patient on this issue, given that it involves a fundamental matter of human rights? Is it not clear that the House’s patience is now running out and that we have to act?

Nick Herbert

I agree entirely with the hon. Lady. It was six years ago that this House legislated for equal marriage in England and Wales. There is a precedent for the proposal in new clause 1: when the Assembly was suspended in 2004, this House passed the Civil Partnerships Act 2004 to extend civil partnerships to Northern Ireland.

There is consent for this proposal in Northern Ireland itself. The Assembly has voted five times for this measure, and it is only because of the petition of concern that it has not already become law there. That petition could not be exercised now, because there would not be a majority for it in Northern Ireland. So if an Assembly were to be constituted under the current arrangements, it would almost certainly vote for equal marriage, because it is has said repeatedly that it would do so. We are not trespassing on what we know the Assembly wants to do; it is just that it does not exist, so it cannot act. The only body that is competent to act on this matter at the moment is the UK Parliament.

Gavin Robinson

The right hon. Gentleman has outlined a history of events that is not correct. The Northern Ireland Assembly voted against the introduction of same-sex marriage on a straight majority until the last vote, in which a petition was used. He also recognises that we as a party do not have the numbers to table a petition. Had he been here yesterday for our Second Reading debate, he would have heard that the one party that is frustrating the ability of the Northern Ireland Assembly to legislate on this issue is Sinn Féin, the very party that says it wants to introduce it. If the Assembly were restored tomorrow—we have no red lines on whether it is restored or not; we want to see it—we could not prevent the Assembly from legislating on this issue.

Nick Herbert

The hon. Gentleman has made his points, and I read yesterday’s debate very carefully this morning. Nevertheless, there is a majority for this proposal in the Assembly at the moment. That majority has been demonstrated. Crucially, there is also a majority among the public in Northern Ireland, but who is speaking for them at the moment? A Sky Data poll last year showed 76% support for equal marriage in Northern Ireland, with fewer than one in five opposing it. On any issue like this, that is a very large majority indeed. I believe that the case is made. We have waited for some time, and we have been patient. It is now right and proper that the UK Parliament should act.

Lady Hermon

The right hon. Gentleman outlined the problem in Northern Ireland as one in which those in same-sex relationships are unable to be married, whereas they can be in the rest of the United Kingdom. The situation is actually more complicated than that, as was touched upon by the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), who was the responsible Minister when the legislation was taken through this House. A problem exists for those who are in a same-sex marriage in Scotland, Wales or England and who come to Northern Ireland, in that as soon as they arrive in Northern Ireland, their marriage becomes a civil partnership. That cannot be right within the United Kingdom, can it?

Nick Herbert

I strongly agree with the hon. Lady. This shows that people in Northern Ireland simply do not have the same rights as those in the United Kingdom, and that is something we should act upon.

There is a case, on its own merits, for introducing same-sex marriage, and I just want to say to the Committee that, frankly, this argument has been won. It has been won in the country and it has been won in this House. One by one, the arguments against this reform fell away. First, there is no compulsion involved. The legislation that we introduced in England and Wales protects religious freedom. Churches are not compelled to introduce same-sex marriages in their own institutions. That is a matter for them. No individual is compelled to enter a same-sex marriage. There is a very simple remedy if someone does not like the idea of same-sex marriage: they should not enter into one; it is not compulsory.

Secondly, why should we not allow people to enter into an institution by which they will demonstrate a lifelong commitment to each other and make that commitment in front of their friends and family? What harm is done by this legislation? We as hon. Members know very well that we pass laws and vote for things every day that make people profoundly unhappy or that irritate them. We put on taxes, we restrict freedoms, we do things that irritate sections of our communities, and we do these things because we think they are right. It is not often that we pass legislation that has a single effect. The single effect of the legislation for England and Wales that was passed six years ago in this House was to make people happy. It was to allow people to enter into lifelong commitments that brought moments of enormous happiness to them and their families.

That is why public opposition to same-sex marriage has continued to fall away. I have enormous respect for those of my hon. Friends who voted against that legislation but who have now admitted that they were wrong. One by one, Members on the Conservative Benches have stood up and said that they were wrong to oppose the measure, just as some Members have said that they were wrong to oppose civil partnerships. They have seen that the legislation has been an unalloyed force for good.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con)

I was one of those who stood up and said that they had got it wrong. I got it wrong, and I now support the legislation. I agree with this proposal, and I agree with the one on abortion, but the problem is that this is like a crack in the dam. If we crack the dam, more and more things will come through. I do not mind that, because I am beginning to think that we will have to have direct rule. I would like very much for us to consider all the problems in Northern Ireland and to deal with them. If we do not have an effective Executive in Northern Ireland, we are going to have to do that anyway. What we have to realise today is that if we pass these new clauses, it will be the thin end of the wedge and other things will, and should, follow, because they are very important to people in Northern Ireland.

Nick Herbert

I commend my hon. Friend for saying once again that he was wrong in opposing the same-sex marriage legislation. I am grateful for that, and I admire him for having the courage to say it. The reason I do not think that this is the thin end of the wedge, however, is that at the end of the day this is about something quite fundamental—namely, equality. I do not think that introducing a measure to ensure and promote equality can ever be described as the thin end of the wedge. I think it is the right thing to do.

Four years ago, the Supreme Court of the United States took a landmark decision that I hope will not be reversed, in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges, to allow same-sex marriage throughout the United States. In the concluding remarks of the lead judgment—which have been much quoted since—Justice Kennedy set out brilliantly why this is the right thing to do:

“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfilment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilisation’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law.”

That is all we are asking for the people of Northern Ireland today.