Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill

2.21 pm

     Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con):

Marriage is one of the most important institutions in our society. It concerns many of us that it is in decline, yet while many move away from marriage, one group turns towards it. Gay couples are now asking to be admitted. Here we have a section of society who are saying that they want to declare commitment and that they value stability, in the sight of the public and perhaps of God. We defenders of marriage should be gratefully opening the doors, yet the reaction of some has been to slam them shut.

It is said that gay people should accept civil partnerships-and no more-which confer most of the legal rights of a marriage. Thousands of people such as me have cause to be grateful for the courage of hon. Members who voted for that change. Entering a civil partnership was the most important thing I have done in my life. At that time, civil partnerships were opposed by the Churches, a significant proportion of the public and many hon. Members. Just eight years later, only a small minority of the public oppose civil partnerships and many hon. Members who voted against the change now say they support it. People choose marriage for a reason: they know that it means something special. Indeed, it is because marriage is different that many are opposing the change, so we cannot say that civil partnerships are the same or dismiss the debate as being about a name. How many married couples would like to be told that they were barred from matrimony and able only to take out a civil partnership?

The Church of England and the Catholic Church object to gay marriage. I disagree with them, but their religious freedom is surely among the greatest prizes in our democracy. I would not vote for this Bill unless I believed that it protected religious freedom. No faith group should be compelled by law to conduct a gay marriage against its will, and none will be, but religious freedom cuts both ways. Why should the law prevent liberal Jews, Quakers or Unitarian Churches from conducting gay marriages, as they wish to? With the proper safeguards for faith groups and individuals to exercise their consciences and to disagree, I do not believe that there are sufficient grounds to oppose a measure that allows gay marriages for others. No one has to enter a gay marriage. No one's Church has to conduct a gay marriage. We simply have to agree that someone else can enter a gay marriage.

Are the marriages of millions of straight people about to be threatened because a few thousand gay people are permitted to join? What will they say? "Darling, our marriage is over: Sir Elton John has just got engaged to David Furnish"? I appreciate the sincerity with which many people oppose equal marriage and the serious points made. Ensuring that religious freedom is protected is a proper concern, but some of the objections do not bear scrutiny. We are told that because there will not be a legal definition of "consummation", there is some terrible flaw in the Bill, but many loving heterosexual marriages exist without consummation. Are they invalid? For some, the objection is to homosexual conduct itself. Today that is a minority view-one thankfully in decline.

     Mr Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con):

My right hon. Friend says that that attitude is in decline, but does he agree that although achieving legal equality is critical, it is-and only ever will be-part of the battle for acceptance?

     Nick Herbert:

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend.

I believe that many who do not share that view nevertheless have a principled concern that gay marriage would mean redefining the institution for everyone, yet Parliament has repeatedly done that. If marriage had not been redefined in 1836, there would be no civil marriages. If it had not been redefined in 1949, under-16-year-olds would still be able to get married. If it had not been redefined in 1969, we would not have today's divorce laws. All those changes were opposed.

     Andy Sawford (Corby) (Lab/Co-op):

I would like to praise the right hon. Gentleman's advocacy of the cause of equal marriage-and give him a moment longer to speak. I agree with him that the definition of marriage is, in fact, what means most to us as individuals. I define marriage as being about a loving, long-term relationship. That is something to be celebrated and open to all in our society.

     Nick Herbert:

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that this is an institution that should now be open to all.

When I was born, homosexual conduct was a crime. Not so long ago, it was possible to sack someone because they were gay. People did not dare to be open. Thank goodness so much has changed in my lifetime. That progress should be celebrated, but we should not believe that the journey is complete. I think of the gay children who are still bullied at school or who are fearful about whether their friends and families accept them. I think of sportsmen and women-vital role models-who still do not feel able to come out. The signal we send today about whether the law fully recognises the place of gay people in our society will really matter. Above all, I think of two people, faithful and loving, who simply want their commitment to be recognised, as it is for straight couples. That, in the end, is what this Bill is about.

Millions will be watching us today-not just gay people, but those who want to live in a society where people are treated equally and accepted for who they are. They will hear our words and remember our votes. I hope that, once again, this House will do the right thing.

Alexander BlackLGBT, Justice