It is a privilege to follow Mr. Duncan, whose speech was most elegant and, more importantly, tremendously moving. The whole House, whatever the position of individual Members, will treat it with great respect, and I congratulate him on it.
Seven years ago, I went to a beautiful summer wedding with my husband and daughter. I love weddings—it is like seeing a Shakespeare play performed with a different cast—and attend them with great anticipation. On that lovely day, we were all very pleased for the happy couple. Like anyone who is married, I remembered my own wedding, now some 27 years ago, and recalled the emotions, the commitment and the shared responsibilities that I embraced on that occasion. I turned to a friend who was sitting beside me at the ceremony and talked about that. She is in a long-standing lesbian relationship. We were all enjoying the lovely occasion, but she told me that the possibility of a commitment to her long-standing partner in which rights and responsibilities were exchanged was not open to her. That made a great impression on me, and I discussed it with my family and friends afterwards. I vowed that if I ever had the opportunity to do something about it, I would. I was therefore pleased to have had the opportunity in December 2002, when I was a Minister, to say that civil partnerships for same-sex couples were a good thing.
Before I made that announcement, there was a great deal of nervousness in government about what would happen, how people would react and what they would say. Would the heavens fall in? However, I made the announcement and that did not happen—life went on as before, and society did not appear to have suffered any disruption. Almost as soon as I made the announcement, my offices in the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and in my constituency received many messages of support from people who had been in same-sex relationships for years. They loved and cared for one another in sickness and in health, but had never had the opportunity to register their relationship and enjoy the rights that many of us take for granted.
The proposed legislation, which I warmly support, is important for two reasons. First, it deals with equality and social justice. It gives people in loving relationships an opportunity to register those relationships. There will no longer be terrible cases of people who are in dire straits at times of great sickness or bereavement being denied access to their partner. Secondly, it will show that our country has grown up and come of age. We have heard about the great reforms of the 1960s, but those reforms decriminalised homosexuality and did not deal with acceptance. They did not achieve equality and social justice, but the Civil Partnership Bill will change that. It is therefore right to look at the Bill's approach to rights and responsibilities.
Make no mistake—we are doing something of fundamental significance for equality and the society in which I want my daughter to grow up. We must treat people with respect and compassion, which means that we must go even further than we are going today. If, for example, the Bill is enacted, as I am certain that it will be, and the first civil partnership registration takes place, the happy couple may decide to go on holiday to celebrate. The holiday company, however, may refuse to accept their booking because they are a same-sex couple. Most people in the House would be outraged by such behaviour, but the practice is not outlawed. People cannot be discriminated against at work, from nine to five or whatever hours they work, on the grounds that they are gay, lesbian or bisexual. After five o'clock, however, if they go to the pub with their friends they could be refused a drink. Until very recently, a well-known holiday company, Sandals, which offers Caribbean holidays, overtly prevented same-sex couples from going on some of their holidays. It has now reversed its position following pressure, but discrimination is still possible under the law. It has changed its policy, but there is nothing to prohibit discrimination against gays and lesbians on the ground of sexual orientation in the provision of goods and services.
If this House truly wants to show that it has come of age, it should move to outlaw discrimination on the ground of sexuality in the provision of goods and services. That is long overdue and we should resolve to take action as quickly as possible.
In all the campaigning on this issue, the speeches and articles that have been written and the questions that have been asked in this place and elsewhere, one organisation has campaigned particularly hard—Stonewall. I congratulate it on the way in which it has conducted its campaign. It is perhaps one of the best lobbying organisations in this country, and it is known to hon. Members in all parts of the House. It conducts its lobbying and campaigning in an exemplary way, but operates on a shoestring. It is amazing that it manages to do what it does. As we deliberate on this Bill, we should recognise that we owe a great deal to that organisation and to the people who have worked with it, campaigned with it and supported it.
We often assume in this House that it is we as Members of Parliament who have brought about legislation, but that is not the case. We also owe a great debt to the civil servants and officials who have spent months, if not years, putting everything together. From personal experience, I know that there is a devoted team of officials in the women and equality unit who have pioneered this legislation. In particular, one of them is a woman who has dedicated her life over the past couple of years to ensuring that it is introduced. I thank those people very much indeed. For them, this has been not a 9 to 5 job, but a life's work ensuring that we get the legislation that is so important.
I am grateful for having had the opportunity to speak in this important debate. I know that many important speeches will be made. I believe that we are doing something very important today that other parliamentarians will look back on in future years, and say, "I wish I could have been here then." Our Parliament has grown up, our country is growing up and we truly are striving for a society that is equal and in which there is social justice.