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Orders of the Day — Civil Partnership Bill [Lords]

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:40 pm on 12th October 2004.

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Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham 4:40 pm, 12th October 2004

The argument that my hon. Friend advances can certainly be considered, but, if I may say so, his customary generosity gets the better of him. The reality is that most of us have studied the debates on the Bill, and my noble Friend Baroness O'Cathain set out her stall at an early stage, on Second Reading. I am willing to acknowledge that there will be people who voted for that amendment in good faith, who believe that it can be of benefit and who are not motivated by any desire to undermine the Bill. The trouble is that that argument does not work for my noble Friend Baroness O'Cathain, any more than it works in favour of my noble Friend Lord Tebbit. Both those individuals made it clear beyond doubt that they passionately opposed the Bill and wished that it had never been brought before the House in the first place. Indeed, Baroness O'Cathain explained eloquently and at some length that she would far prefer an inheritance tax abolition Bill and that she thought this a bad Bill that should not have been introduced, so I do not accept that argument.

I reiterate what seems an important constitutional point. It was grossly irresponsible of Baroness O'Cathain to press the amendment—successfully, as it transpired—without undertaking the elementary duty of consulting the organisations whose client groups would be affected. Equally, it was grossly irresponsible of the other place to allow the amendment to pass, in the full knowledge that Baroness O'Cathain had failed so to consult.

There is a fourth and final argument that I want to make against the amendment, which is that there would be a very substantial cost. The argument has been made by others, but let it be underlined. To suggest an additional £2.25 billion-worth of expenditure, which is what the extension to close family relatives of civil partnership arrangements would require, seems an extraordinarily profligate way in which to behave. I am bound to say to my right hon. Friend Mr. Letwin—the distinguished shadow Chancellor—that if my party is to pursue a policy of fiscal restraint, it seems a rather curious state of affairs to allow the party in the other place to go ahead with a proposal of this kind.

Ultimately, the O'Cathain amendment is but a smokescreen. It is a smokescreen erected by its proposers in a determined but ultimately doomed attempt to conceal their deep-seated hostility to the very principle of gay equality. For in fact, of course, they simply cannot abide it. They despise it. They are frightened by it. The policy of the Bill's most vociferous opponents is driven not by considerations of reason, logic or fairness, but by considerations of paranoia and prejudice. Such an approach should be thoroughly denounced and rejected.

The Tory party cannot just sit on the fence. We have to take a stance; we cannot be on both sides. It is no use simply saying, "Oh yes, we recognise the disadvantages and discriminations suffered by gay individuals and couples, and we think that something should be done, so perhaps there is something to be said for supporting the Bill," only then to be happy to participate in a cynical cabal with Members of another place, effectively to undermine the Bill and probably to destroy it. It is wrong in itself to behave in that way. It feeds the very cynicism about the political process that damages each and every one of us in this Chamber and beyond, and ultimately, such behaviour gets found out. It is a profound insult to the electorate's intelligence to think that we can behave in that way without their latching on to it. People are not stupid—they will see when someone is speaking with forked tongue.

My personal view is that it is not good enough for my own party, of which I have been and remain a proud member—indeed, I have been a member of it for 25 years—to argue that we can retreat underneath the comfort blanket of a free vote. No, I am afraid that that will not do. We on the Conservative Benches still have a great deal to prove. No member of the current shadow Cabinet voted on 10 February 2000 for equalisation of the age of consent. Only one member of the current shadow Cabinet—my hon. Friend Mr. Yeo—voted in March last year for the repeal of section 28. This is the third big policy challenge in the field of gay equality and we must not duck it. We must meet it, rise to it and do the decent thing, which happens also in the end to be the politically advantageous thing. We must support the Bill in its pure form. We must support it today, in Committee, on Report and when it becomes law, because of the benefits that will flow from it.

I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition, who said in his speech at the Saatchi Gallery at the end of October last year that he wanted the Conservative party to be a party capable of representing all Britain and all Britons. He is right. We could start on the road to achieving that objective by voting with enthusiasm and en masse for this Bill in this House.

We have to decide whether we are to be a 21st century party. Of course that involves removing discrimination, but it involves more than that. It involves Conservatives ceasing to pat themselves on the back by saying, "Isn't it good that we preach and practise tolerance?". In the end, the debate is not about tolerance, but about respect—respect for the unique dignity of every individual, respect for all our fellow human beings, respect for the principle of equality before the law and respect for the call for parity of esteem.

To those who say, "You have changed your tune", I say, "Yes, I have changed my tune", like my hon. Friend Mr. Key, and I make no apology for it. The person who never changes his or her mind is the person who never learns anything. I am perfectly prepared to recognise the error of some of my past ways, but I passionately believe in the cause of human equality and social justice. There could be no better signal for the Conservative party to send than the fact that it has changed for the better and changed for good by adopting support for civil partnership as its official policy and giving the Bill, in its original and unadulterated form, the unequivocal blessing that it certainly deserves.