Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): I will endeavour to be brief, Mr Speaker.

Lords amendment 53, on freedom of expression, is important. It has been the mission of many of us to ensure that this important step forward on equality also protects religious freedom. In making it clear that mere criticism of same-sex marriage is not an offence, the amendment surely deals with the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) about the "chilling" factor that such legislation may engender. I must say to him that it also behoves those who call for freedom of speech to ensure that the words they choose are temperate and reasonable. Words may not and should not become a matter for criminal law. I am with my hon. Friend on that, including on the defence of free speech in relation to the offence of incitement of hatred against homosexual people. However, when phrases such as "aggressive homosexuals"-the phrase my hon. Friend used on Second Reading-are used, they take freedom of expression to an unreasonable extent and do cause offence.

Sir Gerald Howarth: Would my hon. Friend have me prosecuted for it?

Nick Herbert: My hon. Friend has not listened to a word I have said. I have just said that nobody should be prosecuted for words that are merely offensive, but that does not absolve those who use those words of causing that offence. If my hon. Friend and others are calling for freedom of expression and not to be prosecuted-as they should not be-for merely criticising activity or conduct, they have a responsibility to use words carefully that do not cause grave offence to a considerable section of the community. It would be considered intolerable to talk of aggressive blacks or aggressive Jews. Perhaps even my hon. Friend would not consider it acceptable to do that, but he did consider it acceptable to use the phrase "aggressive homosexuals". I regret that, and that is why I find it so difficult to accept what he says about the importance of the chilling factor.

The second group of amendments to which I shall refer relates to those applying to clause 9. On Lords amendment 4 on the conversion of civil partnerships into marriage, it has surely been a fundamental proposition of the Bill that the status of civil partnerships is no longer considered adequate to confer equality on gay people.

Mr Speaker: Order. I was just checking that I had not misheard the right hon. Gentleman. Whatever his temptation to dilate on Lords amendment 4 he must resist it, because that is in the second group that we have not reached. He should stick to the first group, and I am sure he has got plenty to say on that.

Nick Herbert: I am very happy to stick to the first group, Mr Speaker.

I hope that Lords amendments 10, 15, 26, 27 and 54, relating to humanist weddings, are in that group. They make provision to allow the dislocation of weddings from premises, to which further consideration will be given. I was at such a wedding in the United States a few weeks ago, and at such weddings it is common to read words that were delivered by the Supreme Court of Massachusetts 10 years ago and which ring true today:

"Because it fulfils yearnings for security, safe haven, and connection that express our common humanity, civil marriage is an esteemed institution, and the decision whether and whom to marry is among life's momentous acts of self-definition. Without the right to marry one is excluded from the full range of human experience".

In words that get to the kernel of the matter and these amendments, the Court continued:

"The history of our nation has demonstrated that separate is seldom, if ever, equal.... The dissimilitude between the terms ‘civil marriage' and ‘civil union' is not innocuous; it is a considered choice of language that reflects a demonstrable assigning of same-sex, largely homosexual, couples to second-class status.... For no rational reason the marriage laws...discriminate against a defined class; no amount of tinkering with language will eradicate that stain."

That surely is the point. It is no longer considered acceptable by a majority of the public, the House of Commons and the other place.

The Bill was not bulldozed through; it was voted through by considerable majorities in both Houses, and it reflects a fundamental change of attitude for the better in our society. The Bill will do no harm to those not affected and it will protect those who do not wish to join in, but, in recognising the place of gay people in our society, it will do a great deal of good for people who love each other and want to express a permanent commitment to each other. For that reason, I will proud to have been a Member of the House of Commons when it passed the Bill and to see it-I hope-given Royal Assent within a matter of days.