Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill

6.22 pm

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): Earlier today, while the Health Secretary was responding to an urgent question on accident and emergency departments, I had to take myself along to the A and E department at St Thomas's hospital because something was wrong with my eyes. I am told that everything is fine, but I had some drops put into my eyes and, as a result, I am now unable to see the official Opposition. The only thing I can see, and have sought to remark on, is the loud and proud and typically revolting tie of the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant). However, I notice that you are wearing the same tie, Mr Speaker. I therefore unreservedly withdraw my remark.

The most serious concern that has been advanced about the Bill relates to ensuring that religious freedom is protected. The concerns expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) are surely genuine, and we were right to pay attention to them. I would not support any measure in this House that would force a Church to conduct a same-sex marriage against its will. That principle of religious liberty is immensely important. The fact that the Bill protects Church organisations and that the Church of England has expressed its confidence in the locks that have been put into the Bill should give the House confidence that we can proceed with this measure. Of course there are other aspects of religious freedom that we need to protect. They were discussed yesterday and will be the subject of further discussion in the House of Lords.

The essence is that no church will be forced to conduct a same-sex marriage against its will. Religious freedom cuts both ways, and those who have rightly spoken on behalf of religious freedom cannot ignore the cause of religious freedom for Churches that do wish to conduct same-sex marriages. What about the Quakers, the Unitarians or the liberal Jews; what about their religious freedom? My argument is that the Bill extends religious freedom and does not restrict it and that those who are concerned about religious freedom should support it. Those advancing these arguments need to say why they have not been interested in Churches such as the Quakers and why they believe that the law of the land should prevent those Churches from doing what they seek to do.

Other arguments have been put against this legislation-that it redefines marriage for everyone, so that even if Churches are protected, the concern remains that it changes the definition of marriage for others, too. As has been said on a number of occasions here, how exactly does it harm or affect those who enter into a heterosexual marriage if a same-sex couple enter into a marriage, too? How does it devalue, change or alter the marriage they have? The truth is that this is not a measure that can remotely be held to do any harm to people at all. Absolutely no harm is done by this measure and a very great deal of good can be done by it.

Less impressive arguments have been advanced in respect of this legislation. It has been said that because same-sex marriages cannot be consummated, there is some problem or lack of equivalence, or that because adultery provisions will not apply directly, there is a lack of equivalence. Actually, most heterosexual marriages are, sadly, ended by the cause of unreasonable behaviour, which could apply just as easily to same-sex couples. I think there was an unfortunate implication behind that criticism, which was that somehow same-sex couples were seeking a licence to enter a marriage in respect of which they sought to escape or avoid the vows undertaken. Of course, the absolute opposite is the case. It is right to extend same-sex marriage to gay couples precisely because it is a good thing if they enter into a loving and permanent commitment to each other. That is a good thing for them, for society and for families, and we should celebrate and support it.

Daniel Kawczynski: Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a consensus across the country that this legislation is important and that we should back it? Even in my rural county of Shropshire, a recent opinion poll taken by the local media showed a majority in favour of this legislation.

Nick Herbert: I thank my hon. Friend and strongly agree with him.

I was about to say that it has been suggested that the public are not with this legislation. Of course an element of the public are concerned about it. That much is clear, but it is also clear from all the independently conducted opinion polls-not those conducted by the pressure groups opposed to the Bill-that a majority of the public support this legislation and that the majority is increasing, as we have seen throughout the world. As for the idea of holding a referendum on such measures at any time, apart from being a bad idea in itself because the House of Commons decides these matters, such a referendum would be likely to pass this measure in any case because the public are in favour of it.

When homosexuality was decriminalised, some Members of Parliament objected. When civil partnerships were introduced, some Members of Parliament objected. They were found to be wrong because society moved on. Attitudes change and attitudes to gay people have changed. The Bill will do no harm and a very great deal of good by celebrating love and commitment and by treating a minority equally. That is why we should welcome it.